A new report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) has even more startling news for parents. Nearly half of all American high school students smoke, drink alcohol, or use illicit drugs. One in four, who start using these substances before they turn 18, may become addicts.
The report also indicates that one-quarter of people in the U.S. who began using drugs or alcohol before age 18 meet the criteria for drug or alcohol addiction, compared with one of 25 Americans who started using drugs or alcohol when they were 21 or older.
Why is dinking, smoking and using drugs more addictive for a younger person?
Harold C. Urschel, MD, an addiction expert in Dallas, says that from the age of 15 to 22, the adolescent brain is still developing. "A complex layer of neural networks is being laid down and brain growth is exponential during these years, so even a little bit of injury from alcohol or drugs is greatly magnified."
"I was surprised at the prevalence of substance use disorders among young people," says study author Susan E. Foster, CASA's vice president and director of policy research and analysis. The new study opens a window of opportunity for providers and parents to intervene and prevent addiction, she says. "Do everything you can to get young people through their teen years without using drugs or alcohol. Every year they don't use drugs or alcohol reduces their risk of negative consequences, such as addiction."
The report also mentioned other findings that give parents an insight to the kinds of drugs teens are choosing.
- The most common drug of choice among high school students in the U.S. is alcohol, followed by cigarettes and marijuana.
- Ten million, or 75%, of high school students have tried tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, or cocaine; and one in five of them meet the medical criteria for addiction.
- Of the 6.1 million, or 46%, of high school students who currently use addictive substances, one in three is addicted to these substances.
The findings are based on surveys of 1,000 high school students, 1,000 parents of high school students, and 500 school officers, along with expert interviews, focus groups, a literature review of 2,000 scientific articles, and an analysis of seven data sets.
"Health care providers need to integrate screening for substance abuse into their practice, and treat and refer patients," Foster says. This may be easier said than done because there is a dearth of addiction treatment information and options available as well as insurance barriers, she says.
Most teens don't begin taking drugs thinking they will become addicted. They usually start trying drugs or alcohol to have a good time and be more like their friends. There's a certain vulnerability to peer pressure that often replaces common sense, and moral teachings.
According to TeenDrugAbuse.org many teens who are addicted don't see a problem with their behavior or their drug use. Drugs make them feel good, and are a way to relieve the stress of school, problems at home, disagreements with friends, and other pressures of growing up.
"Teen substance abuse is a huge problem," says Stephen Grcevich, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Family Center by the fall in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. "The numbers in the new report are very consistent with what we see in context of our practice and surrounding areas."
But teen substance abuse and addiction are not inevitable, he says. Preventing substance abuse starts with "intentional parenting" at an early age.
"You have to have a plan that allows you to be a positive influence on your children at a young age so that when they get to an age where they are exposed to drugs and alcohol, they will know how to say no," he says.
"Kids who do well academically, are involved in religion, and/or are actively engaged in sports are less likely to get involved with these substances," he says. "We need to look at giving kids something meaningful and important to do."
For many teens, the stigma of drug use, drinking and smoking has vanished. It's become acceptable, and almost expected, behavior. It's time for parents and caregivers to take the blinders off and become educated about teenagers and drug use. Parents often notice that their teen will start pushing away from their guidance, and advice. Sometimes communication is almost impossible when both teen and parent don't agree on a particular behavior. But this is the most critical time for parents to keep trying and finding new ways to reach their teen. If the parent - child relationship reaches the point where no valuable communication is happening, then you may want to try family counseling. It's worth the heartbreak, effort, costs, and stress in the long run.