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Teenage Drug Use

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As a teenager, sometimes it's hard to differentiate between a good decision and a bad decision.

In their search for independence, teens gain exposure to a variety of new choices and viewpoints that challenge the values their parents taught them. While some teenagers might express this newfound independence through fashion choices, music, and new relationships, others choose more destructive methods and turn to drugs or alcohol. (see Adolescence Developmental Psychology).

Teenagers who use drugs often have difficulty earning good grades in school, developing problem-solving skills, and maintaining friendships with their peers.

While some teenagers use drugs as a way of fitting into a peer group, others use drugs as a coping mechanism for negative life events or situations they feel they have no control over. In any case, drug use is a destructive path for teenagers that often has consequences reaching far past adolescence.

Prevalence of drug use among teenagers

Results from the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health show illicit drug and alcohol use is common in a number of teenagers in the United States ages 12 to 17.

Among 12- to 17- year olds:

  • 10% were current drug users
  • 8.8% had participated in binge drinking
  • 7.3% had used marijuana
  • 3.1% used pharmaceutical drugs for non-medical purposes
  • 1% used inhalants
  • 0.9% used hallucinogens such as LSD
  • 0.3% used cocaine

source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

Drug Use as a Coping Mechanism

For some teenagers, drugs are a major source of relief from painful memories or stressful situations in their past or present.

Negative events such as divorce, family conflict, witnessing violence, and peer victimization all drive teenagers to use drugs beyond experimental use as an attempt to temporarily forget their distressful feelings.

In the study “Risk Factors for Adolescent Substance Abuse and Dependence: Data from a National Sample,” published in The Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, researchers identified two major negative life events as the main reasons teenagers abuse substances, victimization and witnessing violence.

Using a national sample of 4,023 teenagers ages 12 to 17, researchers Dean G. Kilpatrick and colleagues noted that 7% met the criteria for drug and alcohol abuse, and that the average age of onset was 13.4-years-old.

Kilpatrick stated that peer victimization and witnessed violence, such as viewing a domestic violence, are the strongest indicators of drug and alcohol use among teenagers.

For example, consider a 13-year-old boy who has never quite fit in at his school. During the day, the other boys ridicule the way he dresses, the things he thinks are funny, and the music he likes.

One day after school, the boy begins walking home and the boys follow him, taunting him and laughing at him behind his back. He turns around to say something, but this is exactly what the group was waiting for.

The boys see the 13-year-old try to stand up for himself. They run toward him, throwing his backpack on the ground, and surrounding him. They stop short of hitting him, but they threaten him with words and taunts, challenging him to try and do something.

The boy fears the group, and doesn't know how to react to the situation. While the boys are still taunting him, he breaks free and runs home.

At home, the boy's parents are away at work, and he has no one to talk to. His heart is pounding and he doesn't know what to do.

He remembers how his dad always comes home from work and drinks a beer to relax. Wondering if the beer will help him relax after this stressful situation, the boy opens the refrigerator, and takes a beer.

This situation might reflect many teenagers' first experiences with a substance. A teen who uses alcohol as a coping method will likely develop a case of dependence if he or she doesn't develop more positive coping methods.

While the boy in the example used alcohol as a way of escaping a cruel peer group, still others will use drugs or alcohol as a means of fitting in with a peer group.

Data Gathering Survey

Diagnostic criteria for substance abuse used in the study “Risk Factors for Adolescent Substance Abuse and Dependence: Data from a National Sample” by Dean G. Kilpatrick.

Substance abuse was indicated by answering yes to one of the following questions:

  • Has your use of [substance] ever caused you major problems with your family, your friends, school, or on the job?
  • Have you ever been high from [substance] in a situation where it increased your chances of getting hurt–like driving a car or boat, swimming, or crossing the street in heavy traffic?
  • Have you ever been arrested or had problems with the police because you were taking [substance]–such as driving while intoxicated, for being drunk and disorderly, or for stealing to get [substance]?
  • Have you ever continued to use [substance] in spite of having a lot of problems with your family about using the substance–problems like fights, arguments, or other relationship problems?
  • In the past year, how often have you driven while feeling the effects of [substance]?

Social Factors of Drug Use

For a teenager in high school, one of the biggest influences on his or her life is a circle of friends.

When teens grow older, they seek more approval from friends and peers around them as they develop a peer group. But some peer groups introduce new views and values that may cause more harm than good.

Teenagers who surround themselves with drug-using peers are at higher risk for trying drugs.

In fact, one's peer group is instrumental in developing attitudes about drug and alcohol use as detailed in “Risk Factors for Serious Alcohol and Drug Use: The Role of Psychosocial Variables in Predicting the Frequency of Drug Use in Adolescents,” published in The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse.

Examining 214 teens, researchers Maury Nation and Craig A. Heflinger show that teenagers often begin using marijuana as a result of their perceptions of how many of their friends are using the drug.

The researchers asked the teenagers to identify their four closest friends, and to note how many of them were drug dealers or users. Teenagers who associated with drug users were more likely to also begin using drugs, especially if those teenagers had drug-using family members.

For example, consider a 14-year-old freshman in high school who has expressed interest in theater. She isn't sure how interested she is in acting, but her older brother had taken several theater classes in high school, telling her that it was a good way to meet people.

After several classes, she begins to view the older students as role models, and wants to be friends with them. One day, coming into class early, she finds them in the back room smoking marijuana. She's slightly shocked because she's never actually seen the drug, but the fact that her friends are smoking it piques her interest.

Because she doesn't want the students to view her as an outcast, she decides to smoke the drug with them.

The girl in the example gave in to the wishes of the peer group in order to increase her social standing and seem “cool” to the older students.

The fact that the girl's older brother had recommended theater classes to her might have also motivated her to try the drug. He had spoken very highly of the friends he met in theater, so the girl assumed drug use was simply a normal part of theater culture.

Even though teenagers begin to place more importance on friends during adolescence, the views of family members are also important factors of how teenagers develop their perceptions of drugs and alcohol.

The article “Parental and Peer Influences on the Risk of Adolescent Drug Use,” appearing in The Journal of Primary Prevention notes parental and sibling effects on teenage drug use.

In the study, researchers Stephen J. Bahr and other researchers measured variables such as alcohol consumption, marijuana use, cigarette use, and illicit drug use in a sample of 4,230 teenagers. Bahr hoped to identify the different effects of family on the onset and use of drugs and alcohol.

The study used a series of questionnaires where students indicated how often their friends used drugs, if their parents drank or used drugs, whether their siblings used drugs, how closely their parents monitored them, and what their level of attachment was to their parents.

The study found that for students whose parents were tolerant of alcohol use, the risk of alcohol consumption increased by 80%, and for those with an older sibling who used alcohol, the risk increased 71%.

Results from illicit drug use, cigarette use, and marijuana use were similar, with the risk of use increasing as parents and siblings are more tolerant.

The study also showed that teens who have good, open relationships with their parents are less likely to participate in activities their parents disapprove of, including drug use. Parents who make it known to their teenagers that drug use is destructive and not an appropriate activity in the family reduce the likelihood that their teens will drink or use drugs.

Helping Teenage Drug Abusers

Because there are often underlying factors for teen drug use, psychological help is often required during the treatment process. Substance abuse counselors and therapists exist to help these teens defeat addiction and overcome negative life events that led them to abuse. (Process of Addiction Recovery).

If you're interested in helping teenagers overcome drug abuse, request information from schools offering degrees in mental health counseling or psychology.

Multidimensional Family Therapy: Help for Teenage Drug Users

When teenagers become addicted to drugs, their whole world spirals out of control. Even if they want to stop, they find the social pressures, not to mention addictive qualities of drugs, make quitting almost impossible.

But teens who feel they are in a hopeless situation do not need to tackle their addictions alone. Therapists with empirically based treatments are available to help teens overcome their drug problems, as well as mend the broken relationships resulting from drug use.

One therapy, multidimensional family therapy (MDFT), has proven especially effective in treating teenage drug abusers.

MDFT focuses on individual, peer, and family factors that play a role in teenage drug use. By examining the personality of a teen, the relationship between the teen and his or her family, and the teen's relationship with his or her friends, therapists work to develop problem-solving techniques, and promote anti-drug attitudes in teens.

Therapy is split between sessions with family members and with the individual teen to gain an understanding of the family's attitude toward drug use, and the teen's attitude toward drug use.

During the first stage of MDFT, the therapist works with the teen to establish goals, such as building a non-deviant peer network, promoting more social behavior with nonusers, and reestablishing a relationship between parents and the teen.

The second stage of MDFT works to promote the goals established in the first stage. Through individual sessions, the therapist works with the teen on new communication skills to express thoughts and emotions, including drug refusal techniques. If the teen is using drugs as a coping mechanism for life’s stressors, the therapist discusses new problem-solving techniques to replace drug use.

One of the greatest influences on a teen's view of drug use is related to his or her family. Teens who feel more connected to their parents are less likely to use drugs or engage in devious behavior.

By coaching parents on different ways of reaching out to their teens, such as expressing concern over their development and taking a stand against drug use, the therapist attempts to reconnect the teen with his or her parents.

In addressing both the individual teen and his or her family, MDFT has proven to be an effective method of defeating teenage drug use, according to a study by Howard A. Liddle and colleagues.

For example, while investigating the outcomes of three different therapies for teenage drug use, Liddle found MDFT to show the greatest results.

In “Multidimensional Family Therapy for Adolescent Drug Abuse: Results of a Randomized Clinical Trial,” published in The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, Liddle split 182 clinically referred drug-abusing adolescents into three different treatment groups.

One group received MDFT, another received Adolescent Group Therapy (AGT), and another received Multifamilial Educational Intervention (MEI).

Results from the study showed adolescents treated with MDFT had the sharpest reduction in drug use, as well as improved family, academic, and social functioning. Overall, 42% of the youth treated with MDFT reported a significant reduction in drug use, compared with 25% of AGT users, and 32% of MEI users.

Additionally, those treated with MDFT reported higher grades as a result of the treatment. At the beginning of treatment, only 25% of MDFT patients had C averages or better, but by the end of treatment, nearly 76% of patients reported C averages or better.

Liddle holds that the efficacy of MDFT lies in its ability to repair family relationships while also addressing individual concerns of the teen. And for many of America's teens who report drug abuse, the treatment represents a new chance of living a normal, drug-free life.

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