Teen Addiction: What Is It, Why Does It Happen, And What Can I Do?

First, a not-so-fun fact –the teenage brain is still developing, and crucially the prefrontal and frontal cortex, the part of the brain that deals with decision-making, judgment, impulse, and risk-taking, may not fully develop to adult level until the mid-late 20s. The wiring that carries signals to that part of the teenage brain that controls impulses is incomplete, and so teenagers tend to lack insight and judgment, which makes them prone to teen addiction.


Studies have shown that adolescents show adult levels of intellectual capability earlier than they show evidence of adult levels of impulse control – so they may be able to make informed decisions about their future for example, but do not have the adult ability to override their impulses in emotionally charged situations

It can often be difficult to help teens to battle addiction, considering that they may not even have the capacity to control their impulse to engage in risky behavior.

If you are reading this, you are more than likely an adult who recalls your own teen years, and you may be cringing right now, at the memory of certain poor decisions that you seemingly made without any consideration whatsoever.

Let’s take a deeper look at causes of teen addiction, how and why it happens and the best ways to deal with this difficult phase of the youthful experience.


What Is “Addiction?”


This may seem like an obvious question, but not fully understanding the meaning of the word “addiction” can create undue panic for a parent that may cause them to overreact to a teen’s possible problem in a given situation. As the adult, you have to keep a calm head!

Addiction has been defined by Merriam Webster as “compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance (such as heroin, nicotine, or alcohol) characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal; broadly persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful”.

This needs to be distinguished from “abuse”. Consider the following scenario – Joanie, aged 16, has smoked pot only recreationally at parties on 2-3 occasions. She does not have an addiction because she has apparent control over pot use. But she has but she has abused a substance.

The danger here is that Joanie’s abuse of pot could conceivably lead to an addiction to pot, for example, if she felt that she had to use it every time that she goes to a party, which is possible because of her age and lack of impulse control.

People can get addicted to all sorts of substances. When we think of addiction, we usually think of alcohol or illegal drugs. But people become addicted to medications, cigarettes, even glue!


How and Why  Do Teenagers Become Addicted?


There is no catch-all reason why teens abuse and become addicted to drugs and alcohol, medications and substances.

But consider the following as five possible factors where, as a parent of a teen, you need to be vigilant:

1. Escapism – if teens are unhappy and have no healthy release from their stress. Drugs may give them quick fix where they feel happy, strong and confident. Some abuse prescription medicines to provide extra energy for studying or steady exam nerves.

2. Rebellion -  sometimes teens yearn for independence and become angry about their situation, or maybe just to feel relaxed – different drugs cause different emotional effects that may suit the particular teens perceived needs, and they want to upset their parents.

3. Peer Pressure – teens like to follow the cool crowd, or if their parents and others adults use drugs and alcohol indiscriminately, they are prone to trying it out for themselves.

4. Boredom – or loneliness can be a trigger for teens to try and fill the void in their lives. Also, it may make them feel more connected and bond with other teens who feel the same way.

5. Confidence – if missing can be a very dangerous trigger for drug and alcohol use. If teens feel low self-esteem, inability to fit in with other kids, or even just have the confidence to talk in public, they will seek out a way to loosen up and relieve social anxiety.

What Can You Do To Help Your Addicted Teen?


If you find out that your teen seems to have developed an addiction to drugs and alcohol, your first step should be to do your research about the cause, effects and possible treatment, and you should read more about how to help teens battle addiction, so that you at least have an understanding of options open to you. The most important thing you can do is not to lecture your teen but to open up a dialogue so that you can find out why, when and how the substance use began.

Do not rush to fast judgment, get angry, yell and so on. You may have missed symptoms in your teen such as fear, anxiety, and depression: maybe your teen has sleep deprivation problems of which you were unaware.  Teenagers who don't get enough sleep are four times as likely to develop major depressive disorder as their peers, a major factor for sustenance addiction.

Get all the facts straight, take your time because different drugs and substance cause different types of behavior. The objective here is to find out the extent and use of the substance and build a greater understanding of what has been going on.

It is important to try and create healthy communication immediately, it is never too early to talk about the teens’ drug using habit or to seek help from teen addiction professionals.