Many years of research give strong indication that some children and teens are more predisposed to developing a substance abuse problem compared to others in the same age group.
Many risk factors contribute to this predisposition to substance abuse, and the more risk factors present in a teen’s life, the more likely they will develop drug addiction or alcoholism. Even children or teens raised together in the same home could have varying risk levels.
The future is not etched in stone, though. These risk factors only offer a general gauge of the likelihood of developing drug or alcohol abuse problems. Learning about them while children are growing up allows parents to pay closer, more informed attention to their children. Recognizing the risk factors enables parents to take certain measures to help reduce the odds against their children.
5 Common Risk Factors for Teen Drug and Alcohol Abuse
- Family History of Addiction – There is a strong genetic component to addiction. If a parent, sibling or other blood relative suffers from some form of addiction (alcohol, drugs, food, sex, gambling), a child born into this family is at greater risk of developing the same addiction. Children who are born already addicted because of prenatal exposure to powerful drugs will likely face a higher risk of addiction later in their lives. Children of alcoholics (COAs) are up to 4 times more likely than other children to become alcoholics themselves.
- Childhood Trauma – Research shows that life experiences in early childhood program the brain for certain expectations later in life. Children who are exposed to certain traumatic experiences may be at a higher risk for substance abuse. Examples of trauma include:
- Abuse (verbal/emotional, physical, sexual)
- Domestic violence
- Hostage situations
- Natural disasters (earthquake, flood, hurricane)
- Physical altercations
- Witnessing a death, murder, suicide, shooting
Experiences such as these leave their mark. Children who are exposed to these kinds of trauma eventually get tempted to look for ways to cope with their distress. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 25% of American children experience at least one traumatic event before the age of 16. Some are fortunate enough to undergo therapy or stress debriefing but those who don’t remain vulnerable to certain addictions down the line.
- Impulsive Personality – Some children find it hard (if not impossible) to control their actions, seeming to always need high levels of stimulation. They tend not to weigh the consequences of their decisions, choosing instead to take action that leads to instant gratification. These children have a higher risk for drug and alcohol problems later on in their lives. There is an area in the brain that controls impulses. Some studies have found that this area is less active in teens with a history of drug misuse, even if they did used less than 4 times in their lifetime.
- Drug-using Peers – Peer pressure is probably one of the strongest risk factors that contributes to teen substance abuse. Adolescents feel the need to look cool, to fit in, and to impress their friends. Coupled with a natural curiosity and egged on by friends who are “accepting” of drugs, they are easily convinced to “give it a try.” According to NIDA and scientists from Cardiff University, teens who hang out with friends who use marijuana and other drugs are at almost 3 times the risk of becoming drug users themselves. The younger they start drinking or using drugs, around ages 10-12, the greater the risk of addiction later in life.
- Mental Health Condition – More and more studies are connecting pre-existing mental health conditions in children as major risk factors towards developing substance abuse problems later on. Young adolescents who suffer from anxiety, depression, ADHD, personality disorders and other mental health problems tend to develop prescription drug abuse problems by self-medicating when they become adults.
Key Risk Periods
Other studies show that major transition periods in a child’s life are also periods of high risk for experimenting with substance use and subsequently developing addiction problems.
Major transition periods in a child’s life include the first time they step out and leave the security of their home to enter school. Next, they advance from elementary school to middle school where new experiences, both social and academic, may sometimes overwhelm them. It is at this time during early adolescence, when they deal with larger, more diversified groups of peers, that children are likely to get their first encounter with drugs.
When they reach high school, adolescents face even more challenging, sometimes emotional, social situations. Drugs may also be more available to them at this stage, along with drug-abusing peers. The way they respond to these challenges will determine their susceptibility to alcohol and illicit drugs.
Soon these young adults leave home for college or work and are totally independent for the first time. The risk for drug and alcohol abuse at this stage is very high, especially when they are in charge of their own money.
Other major transitions that happen somewhere in between these life events include moving to a new town or city, changing schools in the middle of a school year, breaking off relationships, being separated from a parent through divorce and/or having to live in a different household with a parent’s new spouse and their family, if any. Basically, any life event where the child is “forced” to accept some major changes in his/her life is considered a risk period.
These risk factors do not necessarily condemn a child to a future of alcohol or drug addiction. Awareness on the part of the family, the parents especially, goes a long way into mitigating whatever negative impact these risk factors present in the life of the child.