What Does Addiction Look Like in Teens?

July 8, 2020

Addiction comes in many forms. Whether it’s drugs or alcohol, technology, or something else, addiction is a growing public health concern among teenagers in the United States. Teens who abuse drugs or alcohol may have an increased risk of developing an addiction when they are adults. Once addiction develops, substance abuse treatment at a treatment center like Hillcrest Adolescent Treatment Center in Agoura Hills, California may be the only option that can help your teen stop using and enhance their chances of living a substance-free and healthy life.

Teen substance abuse can have long-term cognitive and behavioral effects. The brains and other body systems of teens are still in the development phase, and the use of certain substances can inhibit or impair these vital growth processes. It is important for parents to be able to understand the difference between substance abuse and addiction. Many teens will experiment with a substance at some time but aren’t addicted. Recognition and prevention of chronic use that can lead to addiction can help to end a potential problem before it starts.

How Many Teens Struggle with Substance Addiction?

Studies have shown that many teens struggle with addiction and should seek substance abuse treatment. According to a recent survey by Monitoring the Future Survey (MTF) funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the following trends have developed among teens in recent years.

  • Prescription drug abuse is the fastest-growing addiction among teens.
  • Over twenty percent of teens surveyed have tried OxyContin (for non-medical reasons).
  • Thirty-three percent of teens admit to using marijuana in the last year.
  • Forty-four percent of teens admit to using alcohol in the past thirty days.
  • Alcohol abuse among teens causes nearly seven percent more deaths than all other illicit drugs combined.
  • Nearly forty percent of teens who abused prescription medications obtained the drugs from their parents’ medicine cabinet.
  • One in three parents believe there is little to nothing they can do to prevent teen drug abuse.

Teen Drug Experimentation

Nearly half of all new drug users are under the age of eighteen. Experimentation typically plays the most prominent role in teenage drug use; however, experimentation is also (unfortunately) part of teen life. It is valuable to note, just because a teen has tried drugs or alcohol doesn’t mean they will become an addict. It can, however, be helpful to understand why some teens are tempted to experiment. Some of the common reasons that teens abuse substances, including drugs and alcohol, include:

  • Peer pressure.
  • Stress or emotional struggles.

The majority of adults who struggle with addiction first experimented with drugs before they reached age twenty-one. If you think your teen is experimenting heavily with substances, there are treatment options available, including our program here at Hillcrest Adolescent Treatment Center.

Early Warning Signs of Teen Substance Abuse

There is a strong possibility your teen’s mood swings can be attributed to racing and changing hormones that often accompany adolescence. In other words, mood swings are part of growing up, and they are to be expected as the emotional states of teens change. However, there are some changes in behavior or appearance that you need to consider a little more closely as they can be signs of substance abuse. Some of the more common signs or symptoms may include:

  • A sudden loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed.
  • A significant change in their social circles.
  • Acting sad, aggressive or angry.
  • Marked changes in sleeping patterns.
  • Defiance, or “rule-breaking”.
  • Changes in grades or attitudes about school.
  • Poor hygiene or diminished personal appearance.
  • Avoiding eye contact.
  • Frequent hunger (otherwise known as the “munchies”).
  • The smell of smoke on their breath or their clothes.
  • Frequently missing curfew or secretive behavior.
  • New or noticeable physical changes such as sudden weight loss, frequent nosebleeds, bloodshot or watery eyes, or shakes and tremors.
  • Frequently asking for or stealing money.
  • Frequent difficulties with law enforcement or authority.

These are some of the more common behavioral and physical signs that your teen could be abusing or misusing substances like drugs and alcohol. Knowing what to look for in terms of signs and symptoms may help you as a parent better understand when it’s time to consider treatment at a program such as Hillcrest Adolescent Treatment Center in Agoura Hills. As a parent, it is up to you to initiate a conversation with your teen if you suspect they are experimenting with or chronically using substances. You can start the conversation with simple, non-confrontational questions. Also, be prepared for denial, refusal to answer, or even anger. Remain patient and assure your teen you are there when they are ready to talk. Statistics show at least one in five parents who suspect their teen is using drugs choose not to intervene to prevent further drug use, often because they are afraid to talk to their teen about their concerns.

Common Reasons Teens Abuse

Research and science have pointed to five main factors that contribute to a heightened risk for addiction. These include family history, age of first use, craving, tolerance, and surroundings. Some of these may be things to look for in your teen (or their family history) when you are wondering about substance experimentation.

Family History

When someone in your teen’s biological family (parents, siblings, etc.) has a history of substance use, that child may be at a higher risk for developing a substance use disorder than a teen who doesn’t share a similar family history.


Age is another important element to consider when monitoring teen addiction. The younger a person is when they begin to experiment with alcohol and drugs, the more likely they are to develop an addiction as adults.

Cravings and Tolerance

Because teen brains are still developing, they are more sensitive to the effects of alcohol and drugs than fully developed adult brains. Consequently, when teens use alcohol or drugs early on, they develop physical cravings and tolerances to the substance being used.


Your teen’s surroundings may be the most noticeable sign of teen substance use. Exposure to the use of alcohol and other drugs, whether within the family unit or their social circles, increases access to substances making your teen more vulnerable to first-time use and opportunities for chronic use.

Common Drugs that Teens Abuse

The most common drugs abused by teens aren’t much different from those abused by adults. However, the reasons for abuse may differ as teens are more likely to abuse a specific substance based on its accessibility.


Alcohol is the most commonly abused substance among teens. The social acceptance of drinking among those who are of legal drinking age can lead many teens to view alcohol and its effects as relatively harmless. Also, research shows teens are more likely to binge drink because their impulse control has not fully developed. Binge drinking increases the risk of addiction at any age, and the teenage brain due to its lack of development is at greater risk.


As the legalization of marijuana occurs in states across the United States, marijuana use has increased in turn. Regular marijuana users most often started using during adolescence. Over time, the perceptions regarding the dangers (or lack thereof) of marijuana use among teens are changing. A vast majority of teens (specifically high school seniors) do not think smoking marijuana occasionally carries any risk. Also, more than twenty percent of teens report having used marijuana in the last month.

Prescription and over-the-counter medications

Many prescription medications have intoxicating or even hallucinogenic effects. The use of narcotic pain medications such as OxyContin and morphine or benzodiazepines such as Xanax produces pleasurable results that teens seek out. These substances have a high addiction potential and a significant risk of overdose.

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Addiction Treatment Options

Many teens struggle with stress and other emotional health issues during adolescence. These are common, and while challenging at the time, they typically resolve themselves without much fanfare. However, if you notice your teen is behaving differently for no apparent reason – such as acting tired, depressed our uncharacteristically moody – it could be a sign that he or she is developing a substance abuse-related problem.

If you are unsure whether your child is abusing substances, you can enlist the assistance of your teen’s primary care provider, school guidance counselor, or drug abuse treatment provider. These individuals may be able to provide you with other signs and symptoms to look for or offer valuable insight into your child’s behaviors outside of the home that you may be unaware of. Also, guidance counselors or your primary care provider may be able to offer insight into suggested treatments that may be the most beneficial for your teen.

In some cases, this may not be the first time you have discussed treatment with your teen.

If your teen has already tried quitting or reducing their substance use and failed or relapsed after treatment, it’s essential to receive treatment (or return to treatment) as soon as possible. The earlier an addiction is recognized and addressed, the easier it is to treat, and treatment is more likely to be successful.

Many teens who struggle with addiction also have a co-occurring mental health disorder, such as anxiety or depression. The most effective treatment programs integrate care for both issues concurrently. If you are looking into treatment programs, it is essential to look for programs with licensed professionals trained to address co-occurring substance use and mental health treatment at the same time.

If you are concerned about your teen’s experimentation with or use of substances, it may be time to consider a treatment program designed to address their individual needs. At Hillcrest Adolescent Treatment Center, our California teen drug addiction programs are designed around the individual. We ensure that each person receives specialized care from our highly trained team of drug addiction medical professionals. If you are concerned that your teen may be using, don’t wait to seek help. Early intervention is the most successful path to recovery and ongoing sobriety. Contact us today to learn more about our teen treatment programs.



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