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How To Prevent High School Students From Experimenting With Drugs And Alcohol

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

Medically reviewed by

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

January 6, 2019

Teens who experiment with substances early on are at a greater risk of long-term use and addiction. The best way to deter this type of behavior is by taking early preventative measures to discourage the use of drugs and alcohol.

Though substance abuse of all kinds is widespread in the U.S., according to the National Institute On Alcohol Abuse And Alcoholism (NIAAA), “alcohol is the drug of choice among youth.” This, unfortunately, means that alcohol abuse is a “leading public health concern” for adolescents and one that should not be taken lightly.

An estimated 5,000 young people (defined as under age 21) die every year as a result of underage drinking– whether from vehicle crashes, homicides, suicides, or medical injuries. Even so, underage drinking is a continuous problem in the U.S. and one that requires ongoing methods of prevention.

Other substance abuse forms among teens may begin as early as age 12 or 13, as the National Institute On Drug Abuse (NIDA) states. Early use of substances may include:

  • Inhalants
  • Marijuana
  • Prescription drugs (such as painkillers)
  • Tobacco

One of the more troubling facts about experimentation with substances among teens is that early use can foster long-term use. For this reason, early prevention measures are key to reversing the ongoing trend.

Understanding Why Teens Experiment With Drugs And Alcohol

There are many factors which may contribute to the reasons teens experiment with drugs or alcohol. Because of this, there is no single reason which explains substance abuse. Instead, several factors may affect teens and lead them to illicit substance abuse. Some of these include environmental factors or biological factors. An example of a genetic factor may be a family history of drug or alcohol abuse.

Environmental factors comprise those things which influence the person affected, such as becoming involved with or exposed to other drug-abusing teens. Gender, race, and geographic location may contribute to the age and ways teens begin to abuse drugs or alcohol.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, teens may be seeking a new thrill or looking for a way to cope with certain stressors in their lives. In these cases, it is easy for teens to turn to substance abuse as an answer to problems which they feel are outside of their ability to endure.

Further, as research suggests, just being a teen may contribute to risk factors. As children move from young childhood into adolescence, they undergo extreme developmental, emotional, lifestyle, and physical changes.

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When teens head into puberty and begin to gain independence, substance use risk increases. The transitions into uncertain phases of life, in other words, pose a high potential for substance abuse. In addition, expectancy may play a large role. For instance, if teens believe a substance will have a certain intended effect (alcohol will relax them, for example), they are more likely to seek use of it. Sensitivity and tolerance present issues as well.

Due to differences between the developing teenage brain and the adult brain, teens aged 17 and under have less sensitivity to the negative effects of alcohol, such as drowsiness, lack of coordination, and withdrawal or hangover effects. In other words, they experience a greater tolerance, which may explain high rates of alcohol abuse in teens.

Mental illnesses or conditions, like depression or anxiety, and similar personality traits may also affect teens’decision to turn to substance abuse. Some teens who drink underage, for example, may exhibit the same characteristics, such as:

  • Disruptive conduct
  • Hyperactivity
  • Aggression

Effects Of Drug And Alcohol Abuse: What You Need To Know

To understand how to help prevent teens from experimenting with drugs and alcohol, it is important first to understand what substances can do to the brain and body. But first, a word on how the brain works is necessary.

Simply stated by NIDA, “Pleasure, which scientists call reward, is a very powerful biological force for our survival. If you do something pleasurable, the brain is wired in such a way that you tend to do it again.”

Substances which lead to addiction, then, can cause the addicted individual to want to continue use of them– over and over again.

Addictive drugs trigger feelings of pleasure in the brain, and addiction to drugs actually alters the way the brain functions. Drugs act like components of the brain to affect chemical neurotransmission or react to cause certain chemicals in the brain to be increased.

The lasting effects of prolonged substance abuse mean addiction– at some point, the effects of substance abuse will cause the brain to change in such a way that the person affected will change from abusing substances to becoming an addicted individual.

Substance abuse also affects the body in many ways. Though effects depend on the drug, the following risks are associated with long-term substance abuse, followed by the substances which may cause them:

  • Breathing Problems (opioids, like prescription painkillers or heroin)
  • Stomach pain and nausea (opioids and cocaine)
  • Kidney issues, or kidney failure (cocaine and heroin)
  • Liver disease (alcohol and inhalants)
  • Collapsed veins (from substances taken by injection)

These are only a few of the severe, possible side effects. If substance abuse continues, the affected individual may be victim to any number of serious diseases or conditions, such as:

  • Cancer
  • Heart Disease
  • Hepatitis
  • Lung Disease
  • Stroke

There are also external life factors which may be affected by substance abuse. For teens, continual substance abuse may result in trouble with work or school or problems with family and other relationships. Vehicle accidents, or jail arrests, may also occur for the addicted individual.

Prevention: Where To Start

With an ongoing trend of teen substance abuse, and environmental, biological, and other factors contributing to it, prevention may seem like an impossible task. However, it is key to change. The National Council On Alcoholism And Drug Dependence (NCADD) cites ten tips for teens to follow in order to foster prevention:

  1. Just say “No”— though fear of saying “no” is often greater than the will to say it, it is important to take control of your own decision-making. Do not let others make your decisions, and affect your future.
  2. Avoid peer pressure by forming connections with friends— even if you believe you can be friends with people who are experimenting with drugs or alcohol and not be affected, you may be wrong. Peer pressure is strong, and you should surround yourself with positive influences to avoid succumbing to it.
  3. Bond with parents or other adults— find someone close to you on whom you can rely to share personal experiences, and who can offer insight.
  4. Spend time doing things you love— instead of seeking substance use out of boredom, keep busy doing things you love. Keep your life free from the complications’ substance abuse can cause.
  5. Follow family rules— it is so important to talk things over with your parents when you are feeling like you want to experiment, especially as you gain your independence and begin making decisions for yourself. Substance abuse can negatively affect your relationship with your parents.
  6. Get informed— education about the effects of drugs and alcohol can help you make informed decisions. Avoid the misconceptions and lack of sources, and opt for reliable sources for information as there are many available (see the source list for this page, to start).
  7. Consider your impact— this is your life; how do you want to be viewed, and what impact would you like to have on the world? The negative consequences of drugs and alcohol can affect your life path.
  8. Make plans— in getting ready to socialize, make sure you have a plan in place for how to handle peer pressure, and someone you can call if you find the need.
  9. Speak out, for yourself and others— take control of your life, your health, and your safety. Spread awareness about the effects of drugs and alcohol, and help educate others. Sometimes it can be difficult to confront a boyfriend or girlfriend about their drug or alcohol problem. has tips on how you can talk to your boyfriend/girlfriend about their drug or alcohol issues.
  10. Get help— if you know someone who is experimenting with drugs or alcohol, seek help.

In addition to these lifestyle tips, the Center For Applied Research Solutions (CARS) proposes the idea that a community change is necessary to make a real impact on teen substance abuse. With regard to teen alcohol abuse, for example, communities may be sending mixed messages about the negative consequences of alcohol, or as CARS states,

“An environment that does not support good choices (for alcohol consumption by individuals of any age) seriously undermines the education and awareness programs presented to youth.”

Such an environment comprises media which portrays alcohol consumption as a fun, sexy, or glamorous activity– in contrast to the messages conveyed by parents or other adult role models, who assert the dangers of substance abuse. Further, young people may readily have access to alcohol or other substances from the adults in their lives. In order to prevent binge drinking or prolonged substance abuse, this is a pattern which must stop.

“Communities, overall, need to stop sending mixed messages and instead help young people to develop safe and healthy behavior by creating a safer and healthier environment– one that is consistent with the warnings against alcohol concerned adults convey.”

To implement environmental changes which will produce long-lasting results, communities may take a number of preventative measures, such as:

  • Utilization of data— making use of information gathered about substance abuse and teens can help target the issues, design strategies, and oversee progress for a change.
  • Organized community events— spreads awareness, and also allows community leaders involved in the process to be readily identifiable for future reference.
  • Policy advocacy— working for change in policy regarding substance abuse fosters change.
  • Media advocacy— employ the use of media in order to rally public and policymaker support.
  • Enforcement— ensure follow-through for each of these measures.

The NIAAA lists extracurricular strategies in which teens may engage as a preventative measure; keeping youth busy helps deter them from substance abuse. Ideas for such strategies may be:

  • Supervision by positive adult role models
  • Youth leadership programs and involvement
  • Intensive programs
  • Incorporating skill building
  • Becoming part of a prevention plan

Finally, the Surgeon General’s Call To Action To Prevent And Reduce Underage Drinking asserts that, in order to make a change, we cannot continue to think of teen substance abuse as a teen problem, but must begin to recognize it as everyone’s problem. Indeed, “there is a role for everyone.”

Taking Action: Get Help Today

Fighting the epidemic of teen substance abuse is an ongoing battle, but one that we must continue to combat. All of our youth deserve to grow up healthy, and free from the effects of substance abuse.

If your teen has been experimenting with drugs or alcohol, and you want to find more preventative measures, help is available. Maybe you want to plant the seed of prevention before your teen has the chance to encounter substance abuse. If you contact us today, we will direct you to the resources you need to aid in the prevention or to start the path to drug or alcohol recovery.

Center For Applied Research Solutions - Preventing Adolescent Binge Drinking

National Institute On Alcohol Abuse And Alcoholism - Strategies To Prevent Underage Drinking

National Institute On Alcohol Abuse And Alcoholism - Underage Drinking

National Institute On Drug Abuse - Drug Abuse Hurts Bodies

National Institute On Drug Abuse - Drug Abuse Hurts Your Health

National Institute On Drug Abuse - When And How Long Does Drug Abuse Start And Progress?

National Institute On Drug Abuse For Teachers - Effects Of Drug Abuse On The Brain

National Institute On Drug Abuse For Teens - Alcohol

National Institute On Drug Abuse For Teens - What Are the Negative Consequences Of Underage Drinking?

Surgeon General - The Surgeon General’s Call To Action To Prevent And Reduce Underage Drinking

Teens Health - Alcohol

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