Has Your Teen Used Drugs in the Last 12 Months?

This question was asked of parents in the Drug-Free America’s Partnership Attitude Tracking Study. When asking about marijuana, only 14% of the parents reported that they thought their teen may have tried marijuana. However, when teens were surveyed, a staggering 42% admitted to smoking pot. This means that three times as many teens admitted to using marijuana compared to the reports by their parents. The point is that teens often hide their substance use, and this study shows that parents are often not aware that their teens may be using alcohol and drugs.

Drug Use Trends Among Teens

Overall, the study provided information on the general landscape of teen alcohol and drug use. Its results revealed good news and bad news about how teens see substance use, how they are influenced by friends and family, and trends regarding use of certain drugs. Some of the trends that the study revealed include:

Marijuana: The use of marijuana among teens remains high, and the fact that the drug is becoming legalized in some states is making it easier for teens choose to use the drug. Since approximately 2010, marijuana use has remained at around 49% of adolescents. The study reported that the idea of using marijuana is becoming normalized due to:

  • increase in teens’ perception that more of their friends are using marijuana
  • high levels of daily use of marijuana among teens
  • one third of teens reporting that they would use marijuana if it were legalized

Alcohol: Reports by teens using alcohol in the past month and in the past year has decreased significantly to the lowest level in the past five years. However, teens also didn’t appear to understand the risks of alcohol consumption – there was a decrease in the perceived risks of using alcohol.

Prescription Drugs: The abuse of prescription medication (including both pain pills and others) is the third most abused drug among teens (behind marijuana and alcohol). Approximately 23% of teens reported that they’ve abused prescription pain medication at least once in their lifetime, and roughly 16% of teens reported abusing prescription pain medication in the last year. Sadly, about 38% of teens who abuse prescription drugs reported that they obtained them from their parents’ medicine cabinet.

Over the Counter Cough Medicine: There was an increase in the abuse of over-the-counter (OTC) cough medicine between 2012 and 2013. In 2012, 12% of teens reported that they tried OTC cough medicine once in their lifetime, while in 2013, it was 15% of teens. Despite these numbers, 75% of teens reported that they perceive to be a moderate to significant risk that comes with the abuse of OTC cough medicine.

There was some additional good news about trends in teen drug use. For instance, there were fewer teens who reported having friends who used substances. This is seen as a positive trend because teens are less likely to use substances if their friends aren’t using substances. Another positive trend is that fewer teens reported having access to substances that could be potentially abused, such as OTC cough medicine, synthetic marijuana, and bath salts.

Parents Have an Influence on Their Teens

Another important trend that the study revealed is that parents can have a significant influence on their teen’s choices regarding substance use. The study revealed that parents can take the following two steps to help their teen. Although these steps may not prevent a teen from experimenting with drugs, it may prevent them from becoming a heavy user of alcohol or drugs.

  1. Communicate your disapproval of the use of alcohol and other drugs. Teens who know their parents disapprove of drug use are less likely to use. The opposite is also true too – when teens get the message that their parents do not care, they are more likely to use. In some families, teens may even get the message that their parents approve of drug use. In these cases, teens are more likely to experiment and continue to use. However, if you want to help your teen avoid drugs, it’s best to let them know how you feel about substance use before they get to adolescence.
  2. Communicate the risks that come with heavy alcohol and drug use. Parents may need to do some research on the effects of certain drugs in order to communicate this to their teen. Specific risks (such as meth can significantly impair brain functioning) as well as general risks (such as substances can interfere with school and professional success) are both important to discuss.

In addition to the two powerful steps above, parents can also do the following to further prevent drug use in their teen:

  • Have an open dialogue about drinking and drug use. Parents might do their best to create an open dialogue about substance use, meaning that the conversation can be two-sided allowing for your teen to share their thoughts and opinions. A one-sided dialogue that feels more like a lecture can turn teens off.
  • Be honest about your own drug use. Although parents may be reluctant to tell their children about their own drug use thinking that it will prompt the same in their children, in some cases, it’s actually better to be honest when teens ask. In this way, you can tell your teen about the consequences. However, there are times when it may not be a good idea to talk about your past. Here’s an article about the pros and cons on this topic.
  • Set a good example. Some parents believe that their teens are not paying attention. Besides, often teens are out with their friends, frequently in their room, and ignoring what you say. However, adolescence is a time when teens are searching. They tend to notice behavior, speech, reactions, and choices that those around them make – including their parents. It’s best to model the kind of behavior you want from your teen.
  • Get to know your teen’s peer group. If you find that there’s a person your teen is spending time with that you don’t approve of, limit or prohibit your teen’s time with that friend. You might stay more on top of where your teen is going and when. You might even spend more time with your teen so that they are not spending time with friends you don’t approve of. You might even ask that your teen provide you with the numbers of all their friends they are spending time with.

Substance Use and Mental Illness

Another step parents should consider is having their teen screened for mental illness. If your teen continues to use substances, they may be attempting to manage depression, anxiety, or another psychological illness. More than two-thirds of teens who abuse substances also have a mental illness. If you take your teen for a drug screening, be sure to have your them assessed for mental illness as well. Illnesses that are frequently seen in teens who have a co-occurring disorder include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • ADHD
  • Eating disorders

Lastly, if parents are having a challenging time keeping their teen safe and sober, it’s important to contact a mental health professional in your community.