Explaining Addiction to Teenagers: Our 5 Top Tips
Being a teenager is tough. Navigating complex emotions and raging hormones while finding one's place in the world is a challenge for anyone. This stage of development can also bring with it a certain amount of experimentation. Although this has been normalised, research shows that early use of substances increases a person’s chance of developing an addiction. This is why explaining addiction to teenagers is so critical.
Research conducted by the National Institutes of Health found that marijuana is the most commonly used substance among adolescents. Over 35% of 12th graders reported engaging in marijuana use.
According to the CDC, along with marijuana, alcohol and tobacco are the two substances most commonly used by teenagers. By the 12th grade, approximately two-thirds of students have tried alcohol.
Among 12th graders, about 2 in 10 students reported using a prescription medication without a prescription.
Many addictions begin during the teenage years and young adulthood when the brain is still vulnerable and developing. Fortunately, talking to your kids about addiction can help prevent them from engaging in drug and alcohol use. You can also address behavioural addictions such as TikTok and Gambling.
Educating your teenager on what happens to the brain when drugs and alcohol become the norm is key to prevention. So is fostering a safe, nonjudgmental space for open communication.
Read on to learn about how the stigmas towards addiction may affect your own beliefs regarding those who struggle. Discover what contributes to drug and alcohol use and what makes someone at high risk for developing an addiction. Finally, gain some tips for explaining addiction to your teenager.
Educate yourself before explaining addiction to teenagers
Before talking to your teenager about alcohol or drug use, it’s important to observe your own beliefs and knowledge about the topic. Unfortunately, addiction today is still quite stigmatised and is viewed by so many people as a moral failure. Although it’s widely touted that addiction is a disease, decades of negative messaging brought on by television and media still permeate society. Therefore, it’s important to observe your own beliefs about addiction and to understand the nature of it as a disease.
When you talk to your teenager, it’s likely that your own beliefs will come out in how you talk to them. Therefore, it’s helpful to be mindful of the types of thoughts you have regarding addiction itself as well as those who are afflicted by it.
Some things you can ask yourself when observing your beliefs about addiction are:
- According to my belief system, is addiction a choice?
- Do I believe anyone can become addicted to a substance?
- Do I believe addiction is a moral failure?
- What do I think causes addiction to develop in the first place?
Again, your answers to these questions will undoubtedly appear in the conversations you have with your teenager, whether overtly or implicitly. It’s crucial to check your own beliefs and biases so that your teenager is presented not only with facts, but also the space to engage in an open-minded conversation.
How substances affect the brain
Addiction affects the brain, body, and spirit in many different ways. When talking to your teenager about addiction, it’s helpful to let them know how addiction affects the brain. This can help them understand that addiction isn’t a choice. Even if they think alcohol or drugs are harmless, occasional use can spiral before they even realise what’s happening.
The manner in which each substance affects the brain is complex. Research today continues to explore the layers of changes that the brain undergoes as a result of ongoing substance use.
However, there are important concepts that can be helpful to explain to your teenager. This can help them understand the progressive changes that the brain undergoes with chronic drug or alcohol use.
Reward system changes
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, or NIDA,
“For the brain, the difference between normal rewards and drug rewards can be likened to the difference between someone whispering into your ear and someone shouting into a microphone. Just as we turn down the volume on a radio that is too loud, the brain of someone who misuses drugs adjusts by producing fewer neurotransmitters in the reward circuit, or by reducing the number of receptors that can receive signals.
As a result, the person's ability to experience pleasure from naturally rewarding (i.e., reinforcing) activities is also reduced. This is why a person who misuses drugs eventually feels flat, without motivation, lifeless, and/or depressed, and is unable to enjoy things that were previously pleasurable. Now, the person needs to keep taking drugs to experience even a normal level of reward — which only makes the problem worse, like a vicious cycle. Also, the person will often need to take larger amounts of the drug to produce the familiar high — an effect known as tolerance.”
Additionally, ongoing drug use changes multiple parts of the brain, including the parts that control decision-making and impulse control. When explaining addiction to teenagers, it’s important for them to understand that the mind they have now will not be the same mind driving their life if they engage in substance use.
What contributes to addiction?
There are many factors that contribute to addiction, including genetic predisposition, environment, and trauma. However, it’s important to explain to your teenager that when someone engages in substance use, in their eyes it’s giving them something they don’t have, even though it’s taking so much from them.
When people become addicted to drugs or alcohol, the substance may be helping them forget or push away difficult memories. They may be helping them cope with the trauma they experienced in their youth, or even later in life. Some people become addicted to substances after simply trying to cope with anxiety, depression, or other mental health concerns. Some people may struggle with feeling disconnected and engage in use to feel something again.
Unfortunately, there comes a point where people engage in substance use simply to function at a baseline. The body and brain have become so accustomed to receiving the substance. Therefore, if it doesn’t have it for a certain period of time, it becomes sick, in what is known as withdrawal. Many people who struggle with addiction may not necessarily feel the desired effects of the substance they long for. They simply continue to use to avoid the effects of withdrawal.
Explaining this to your teenager can help them understand that many who become addicted never thought they would be, as drugs and alcohol quite literally alter how the brain functions and what the body needs. Your teenager may think they would never choose to become addicted, so it’s important for them to know that when addiction happens, it truly takes a life of its own.
When a drug is a means of escaping
With the understanding that people engaging in drug and alcohol use are often looking for a means of coping, it’s important to know that this underlying drive can manifest via other “drugs” as well. This simply refers to other external things that your teenager may be using to ignore or numb their own feelings, escape their feelings, or forget painful memories.
This can show up through activities such as constantly being on one’s smartphone or constantly scrolling through social media. Of course, teenagers will be teenagers, and devoting time to their electronics is quite common in this day and age. However, if your teenager is using these methods as a means of coping with something else, it may still be important for them to find healthy ways of managing their difficult emotions instead.
Even though social media and smartphones are obviously far less harmless than drugs and alcohol, it’s the underlying drive to use something outside oneself to feel better that should be addressed and worked through.
What factors make a teenager at high risk for developing addiction?
As previously mentioned, there are many risk factors that can contribute to the development of addiction in teenagers. Risk factors are things that can contribute to the development of addiction. Conversely, there are protective factors, which can contribute to preventing a teenager from developing an addiction.
According to NIDA, some risk factors for developing an addiction are:
- Lack of parental supervision
- Ineffective parenting
- Lack of attachment by parents or caregivers
- Substance use among peers
- Early aggressive behaviour
- Drug availability
- Poor classroom behaviour
- Poor social skills
- Academic failure
- Living in an environment where substance use is normalised
It’s important to keep in mind that a teenager can have these risk factors, and not develop an addiction to substances. Additionally, being exposed to certain risk factors can also have a greater impact based on the developmental stage during which that factor was experienced. For instance, facing peer pressure during the teenage years.
Fortunately, protective factors can help mitigate the development of an addiction. Some examples of protective factors as shared by NIDA are:
- A strong bond between parents and children
- Being involved in the child’s life
- Setting clear limits and rules
- Enforcing discipline consistently
A systemic review published in 2021 also revealed additional protective factors to be high self-esteem, religiosity, self-control, grit, academic competence, and strong neighbourhood attachment.
How to talk to your teenager about addiction
Below are a few tips to keep in mind when explaining addiction to teenagers.
1. Open the lines of communication
It’s important that teenagers are able to communicate openly, whether it’s about peer pressure they’re facing or questions they have. One way to do this is to foster a safe, supportive, and non-judgmental environment for your child. You can do this by validating their emotions and experiences, and letting them know you accept them for who they are wholeheartedly. This can be done by letting them know verbally, or by modelling this behaviour in how you interact with them and with others. If your teenager knows they can come to you and won't be judged or scolded, it can help to open up the lines of communication.
2. Explain the rules, clearly
When explaining addiction to teenagers, it’s important to clearly state your rules. Research shows that explaining the rules regarding drugs and alcohol to your teenager helps lower their chances of using. According to the Child Mind Institute, studies have found that kids are safer when parents set limits. For this reason, it’s important to avoid ambiguity around drugs and alcohol. Clearly explain the rules to your teenager, and let them know the consequences for breaking these rules.
3. Avoid condescension
Teenagers can easily shut down or push back if they feel they’re being spoken at rather than being spoken with. Be mindful not to speak with condescension and to truly listen to what they have to say/what their concerns are. Fostering true communication means having a dialogue, not a one-way conversation. Talk to your teenager in the same way you would want someone to talk to you.
4. Explain your reasons
It’s important to explain why you don’t want your teenager to engage in alcohol and drug use, rather than just telling them not to, or that “it’s bad.” This helps them see where you’re coming from, and what your concerns are. It also allows you and your teenager to have an open, adult conversation, which helps them feel more involved. Be transparent with your teenager, and also rational.
5. Provide amnesty
Providing amnesty to your teenager can help them feel more comfortable coming to you if they’re in a compromising situation. An example of providing amnesty is to let your teenager know that if they’re ever in a situation where they’re uncomfortable and need help, they can call you and they won’t get in trouble. For instance, if they’re at a party they weren’t supposed to go to, end up drinking, and aren’t able to drive themselves home, providing amnesty means they can call you and ask for a ride without fear of getting in trouble. You ultimately want your child to be safe, and providing them with this amnesty can help prevent them from making other dangerous decisions instead.
A final note on explaining addiction to teenagers
Remember, explaining addiction to teenagers will likely be an ongoing conversation. As they navigate their teenage years and face new experiences, they’ll likely come up against different situations to navigate. They may become more inclined to succumb to the weight of peer pressure, or they may struggle with finding their place in the world. Continuing this conversation with them organically and allowing it to flow with them through every stage of being a teenager can help safeguard them against the perils of addiction.
Author - Thurga