It’s a common belief that teens are going to experiment with drugs during adolescence. Of course, this isn’t true for all teens. Yet, for those who do, there seems to be a series of stages that teens go through with respect to drug use. It begins with experimentation; moves on to regular use, and can escalate to developing an addiction.
Surveys of teens point to the fact that the number who experiment with drugs are far higher than the number of teens who use drugs regularly; and those who use drugs regularly are higher than those who ultimately develop a serious addiction. On the whole, teens are experimenting, and those who develop an addiction usually have other factors that contribute to the development of that addiction. For instance, depression, anxiety, grief, parental divorce, or the death of a friend can drive a teen to begin to use drugs and continue to use until an addiction develops. In fact, if a teen begins to use drugs out of a need to cope with feelings, an addiction is likely. Whereas if a teen uses drugs out of curiosity, an addiction will most likely not develop.
There are two main factors that influence a teen’s movement through the following series of stages. The first is the frequency and severity of drug use and the second is the type of drug. In his book on Adolescent Depression: A Guide for Parents, Francis Mark Mondimore, PhD, clearly outlines these stages and what a teen might experience at each stage. This progression includes the appropriate stage for prevention as well interventions when drug use becomes more serious. Below is a summary of his chart. It is an excellent guide for parents and caregivers should your teen become curious about drugs, experiment, and/or develop an addiction.
Curiosity – Before Experimentation
This stage is ideal for prevention. If your child is beginning to express their curiosity in alcohol, marijuana, or illegal substances, having a very candid discussion with them about the consequences might help prevent drug use.
At this stage, your teen has accepted alcohol and drugs from others. He or she has chosen to experiment for entertainment, putting an end to curiosity, and/or wanting to fit in with a peer group. At this stage, there are no noticeable behavioral changes.
Because the experience of drinking alcohol, ingesting cocaine, or taking narcotics was enjoyable or rewarding in some way, an adolescent might begin to seek out a steadier supply. He or she may begin to use more of the drug more often than planned, and may use substances as a means of escape.
Drug Pre-Occupation Stage
The ability to control use of the drug is severely impaired at this point, and there is very little regard for any consequences.
Drugs are necessary to feel normal. The use of the drug has increased to one or more times per day.
It should be noted that if drug use progresses through these three stages, it can have an effect on the developing teenage brain. When drugs are introduced into the brain, they affect the ability for neurons to communicate with one another. This is particularly dangerous for teens because the signaling and communication that is happening in the brain is on fire during adolescence.
The adolescent brain is undergoing incredible growth. Neurons are wiring and new connections between the two hemispheres of the brain are forming. This kind of growth and connection forming is in an explosive time during adolescence. If the brain can continue to be plastic, that is if new neural connections can continue to form and if old ones can be released, this is can support healthy brain function and mental health. These neural connections and adaptability are important in a teen’s learning, behavior, and mood regulation.
Of course, it’s essential for parents to keep the conversation about drugs open and honest – as best they can. Teens will experiment, but the ones who develop an addiction need the support of their parents and the professional assistance of a drug counselor or therapist.