Currently across many countries of the world today, an estimated 100 million young people aged 12 to 29 are battling substance use disorder.
Yet among the millions, only one in 10 adolescents actually receives professional substance abuse treatment. Adolescents and young adults, as we know, are very prone to addiction. So as a parent, you have every right to be concerned about your child’s early drug and alcohol use—especially if the habits started before he or she turned 18.
Fact of the matter is, adolescents who begin using an addictive substance before age 18 are more likely to develop a clinical addiction down the road (6.5 times more likely, to be exact). They are likely also to typically progress to more chronic and intensive use than those who wait until their twenties.
With the risks so high, and the impact of early drug use so great, we must ask ourselves, why do young people take drugs? And what makes people turn to drugs in the first place?
This is a question that, day-in and day-out, parents of drug-dependent adolescents and young adults ask themselves. You are not alone in wondering why your son or daughter made this choice.
But it is important for you to remember that your loved one did not choose to become addicted to drugs. Addiction is a disease that develops over time; it can happen to anyone, no matter their age, gender or upbringing. Your child’s choice, rather, was made in that first drink, that first smoke, that first pill.
According to experts in brain development, an adolescent does not typically give much thought to the consequences of drug abuse, at least not at initiation. The first time they are offered a drink or a drug, it is primarily about establishing themselves socially. It is about fitting in and impressing their peers.
Teenagers typically prioritize social relationships over their own safety and health. And it is social and environmental factors such as peer pressure that can lead them to continued drug use. When these factors dissipate and pleasure becomes the ultimate goal, that is when they enter the addiction cycle.
Young adulthood is also a key developmental period that carries great social weight. After their 18th birthday, young adults start to experience more freedom. They are heading off to college or entering the workforce; they are driving and staying out later; they are technically adult age. In concert with all these, young adulthood is often associated with increases in substance abuse and its consequences.
Social context is not the only drive behind young people turning to drugs. As the recent Surgeon General’s Report suggests, impulsivity is most often the momentum of early drug abuse. For most drug users, initial substance use typically starts by acting “without foresight or regard for the consequences.”
But for adolescents and young adults, this is especially true: the human brain does not fully develop until a person reaches his or her mid-twenties. Until then, the frontal lobe and prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that is responsible for impulse and decision-making – is not yet fully mature.
It is no wonder, then, why adolescence and young adulthood are the hallmark periods for risk-taking and experimentation. Adolescents’ brains are not fully wired to make rational decisions, and as a result, they are more apt to follow through with risky behaviors.
During this time, youth tend to misbehave, act before thinking and step outside their once-established boundaries – not out of spite, but rather, because that is what their brains are telling them to do. Their brains are saying: “Hey, those consequences don’t really matter right now.” For many, this involves trying drugs.
The problem is, adolescence is also the hallmark period for brain development. It is when the most substantial changes occur. Using drugs during this time can actually inhibit adolescent brain development and leave lasting effects on a child. This stage of brain progress also makes teens particularly vulnerable to substance addiction. About 90 percent of addictions start in the teen years.
The Surgeon General’s Report also suggested that negative feelings (such as pain, stress, or social awkwardness) can increase a young person’s propensity to use drugs.
If your loved one has experienced any stresses or trauma as a child, such as abuse, poverty or conflict in the home, he or she may be more inclined to turn to drugs. If he or she has an underlying mental illness, that may also be the drive.
Many adolescents battle stress, anxiety, and depressive disorders. They may turn to drugs or alcohol as a means to self-medicate, to temporarily relieve any negative feelings. Yet the effects of self-medication negatively reinforce substance abuse, increasing one’s likelihood to use drugs again.
Reinforcement to use drugs can also come from social stimuli—for adolescents especially, the approval of peers will give them more of a reason to use drugs again. Similarly, if a teen drinks or uses drugs to relieve tensions in social settings, or to reduce social isolation, his or her substance use may be negatively reinforced.
The question “why do people turn to drugs” is a multi-faceted one, with so many factors taking part in an adolescent or young adult’s drug initiation. But now that you have the answers, use them proactively – get your son or daughter the help that he or she deserves. Early intervention is vital to your child’s health, both now and in the future.