Drug and Alcohol Abuse, Addiction and Dependence in Teens

Part one of this four-part series will provide you with the information you need to determine whether your child is using drugs—including alcohol—and what to do about it.

You may be surprised to learn that teens these days are using fewer drugs than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. In 2016, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 33.2 percent of high school seniors drank alcohol in the past month, compared with more than 50 percent in 1996.1 Across all grades, the past-year use of cigarettes, heroin, inhalants, methamphetamines and synthetic marijuana is the lowest it’s been since 1975.

The not-so-good news is that adolescents still abuse drugs and alcohol, and if you’re reading this, you probably suspect that your teen is one of them. This is frightening for parents on many levels, and you may feel helpless, hopeless and unsure about what to do.

The first step in determining whether your child is engaging in drug and alcohol abuse or is addicted or dependent is to understand what drug and alcohol abuse, addiction and dependence are and how they develop. Understanding the difference between addiction and dependence will help you better support your child throughout treatment and recovery if necessary.

What Is Drug and Alcohol Abuse?

Drug and alcohol abuse is the act of using drugs in a way that causes problems in your life. These may include relationship, legal or health problems or problems at work or school. They may include engaging in risky behaviors—such as having unprotected sex or driving while under the influence—that can lead to serious problems, including DUI, STDs and injury.

Any substance use by teens, including alcohol, nicotine, marijuana and prescription drugs, is considered drug and alcohol abuse, because it’s illegal for minors to use these substances, and because drugs negatively impact a developing brain.

Whether or not a child engages in drug and alcohol abuse is a matter of choice, but if drug and alcohol abuse transitions to addiction, choice is longer a factor in the abuse.

How Drug and Alcohol Abuse Transitions to Addiction

Heavy drug and alcohol abuse can lead to addiction. Addiction is characterized by compulsive drug use despite negative consequences. It’s a brain disease that changes the physical structures and chemical functions of the brain. These changes lead to dysfunctional ways of thinking and behaving, which in turn perpetuate the drug use and can lead to attitudes and actions that seem out of character for your child.

Different drugs affect the brain in different ways, but one thing they all have in common is that they produce a release of dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter. Dopamine causes feelings of pleasure, and it’s also involved in the memory and learning processes of the brain.

As drug and alcohol abuse escalates, the learning, memory and pleasure centers of the brain are creating important associations between the drug and alcohol abuse and the pleasure it produces. These brain regions begin to communicate with the portion of the brain responsible for planning and executing tasks, and this leads the brain to move from liking the drug to needing it.

Cravings develop, and these are driven by the same mechanisms that drive humanity to eat food and procreate in order to stay alive. As far as the brain is concerned, seeking and using the drug becomes a matter of life and death.

Dependence and How It Develops

Dependence is a physical reliance on drugs and is characterized by withdrawal symptoms that set in when you stop using drugs. When someone is heavily engaged in drug and alcohol abuse, the brain changes the way it functions in order to compensate.

For example, initial alcohol use increases the activity of the calm-inducing neurotransmitter GABA and reduces the activity of the excitability neurotransmitter glutamate. But chronic alcohol use leads the brain to reduce its GABA activity and increase its glutamate activity in order to maintain the right balance of brain chemicals for normal functioning.

The result of these brain changes is tolerance, which occurs when it takes increasingly larger doses of the drug to get the desired effect. But as the dose increases, so do the brain changes. At some point, brain function may shift so that it now needs the drug in order to operate “normally.” Then, when the drug is withheld, normal brain function rebounds, and withdrawal symptoms set in.

Why Some Teens Become Addicted and Others Don’t

Some teens who use drugs will become addicted, but others won’t. The risk of developing an addiction is about half genetic and half environmental. Environmental risks factors for addiction include attitudes of family and peers toward drug and alcohol abuse, the availability of drugs at school, poverty and poor social skills.

Come back on March 20 to read part 2, Signs and Symptoms of Drug Use in Adolescents, or download the entire series now as a fully illustrated eBook:

So You Think Your Child Is Using Drugs or Alcohol


  1. httpss://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics/infographics/monitoring-future-2016-survey-results?utm_source=external&utm_medium=api&utm_campaign=infographics-api

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