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Is Teen Substance Use Normal?

Some level of experimentation or even abuse of drugs and alcohol is common among teenagers.

May 2, 2023

Teen substance use is a topic of great concern for parents, educators, and policymakers. Adolescence is a time of experimentation, but when does experimentation with substances cross the line into substance abuse?

Understanding Teen Substance Use

It is important to understand that some level of experimentation with drugs and alcohol is common among teenagers.

According to a study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, almost 60% of high school seniors have tried alcohol, and about 50% have tried an illicit drug.

Understanding Teen Substance Use

However, the majority of teens who experiment with drugs and alcohol do not go on to develop substance use disorders.

Is Teen Substance Use Normal?

Teens use substances for many of the same reasons as adults, but are often more susceptible to using it due to factors such as peer pressure, stress, or other factors. Substance abuse is never normal or healthy, but it can be fairly common among teens or young adults.

Additionally, just because something is common doesn't necessarily make it "normal" or healthy. It's crucial to be aware of the potential risks and consequences associated with teen substance use, which can include impaired brain development, academic problems, legal issues, and even addiction later in life.

Fitting In

One of the main reasons why teens experiment with drugs and alcohol is to fit in with their peers.

Adolescence is a time when social acceptance is crucial, and some teens may feel pressure to engage in substance use to be part of a certain group or clique. It's important for parents, caregivers, and educators to recognize the role that social factors play in teen substance use.

However, not all teens who experiment with drugs and alcohol do so solely because of peer pressure.

Some may use substances as a means of coping with stress or emotional pain, while others may simply be curious about the effects of drugs and alcohol.

Understanding the motivations behind teen substance use can help adults better address this issue and provide effective support for teens who may be struggling.


Socializing is an important part of adolescent development, and teens who feel isolated or disconnected from their peers may be more likely to engage in substance use. Therefore, it's crucial for parents, caregivers, and educators to encourage healthy socialization among teens.

This can include activities such as sports teams, clubs, or other extracurricular activities that allow teens to connect with others who share similar interests.

Additionally, fostering open communication and a supportive environment at home can help teens feel more connected and less likely to turn to drugs or alcohol.

It's also important for adults to model healthy behaviors when it comes to substance use. This means avoiding using drugs or alcohol in front of teens and being mindful of the messages we send about substance use through our own actions.

By promoting healthy socialization and modeling positive behaviors, adults can help prevent teen substance abuse and promote overall well-being.

Life Transitioning

Another reason why some teens may experiment with drugs and alcohol is as a way of coping with transitions in their lives. Adolescence is a time of significant change, including physical changes, changes in relationships, and increased academic demands. These transitions can be stressful for teens and may lead to feelings of anxiety or depression.

While substance use may temporarily provide relief from these feelings, it can ultimately exacerbate them and lead to further mental health issues. Therefore, it's important for parents, caregivers, and educators to be aware of the potential impact that life transitions can have on teen substance use.

Providing support and resources for teens during these times of transition can help reduce the likelihood of substance use as a coping mechanism. This can include counseling services, peer support groups, or simply being available to listen and provide guidance during difficult times.

By recognizing the role that life transitions can play in teen substance use and providing appropriate support, adults can help promote healthy coping mechanisms and overall well-being among teenagers.

Emotional and psychological pain

Emotional and psychological pain can also be a contributing factor to teen substance use. Adolescence is a time when teens are navigating new emotional experiences and may struggle with feelings of anxiety, depression, or trauma. Substance use can sometimes provide temporary relief from these difficult emotions.

It's important for parents, caregivers, and educators to recognize the role that emotional and psychological pain can play in teen substance use. Providing access to mental health resources such as therapy or counseling can help teens develop healthy coping mechanisms and reduce the likelihood of turning to drugs or alcohol as a means of self-medication.

Additionally, creating an open and supportive environment where teens feel comfortable discussing their emotions and seeking help when needed can also be beneficial in preventing substance abuse. By addressing the root causes of emotional distress and providing appropriate support, adults can help promote positive mental health outcomes for teens.

Risk Factors for Substance Use

While experimentation with drugs and alcohol is common among teenagers, there are certain risk factors that can increase the likelihood of developing a substance use disorder. These risk factors include:

  • A family history of substance abuse
  • Mental health disorders such as depression or anxiety
  • A history of trauma or abuse
  • Peer pressure or a desire to fit in with a certain group
  • Lack of parental supervision or involvement

Prevention and Intervention

Prevention and intervention are key to addressing teen substance use. Parents and caregivers can take steps to prevent substance use by talking to their children about the risks associated with drugs and alcohol, setting clear rules and expectations, and monitoring their children’s behavior and activities.

If a teenager is already using drugs or alcohol, early intervention is crucial. This can involve seeking professional help, such as counseling or substance abuse treatment, as well as providing a supportive and non-judgmental environment for the teenager to discuss their substance use.

Why Teen Substance Abuse Is So Common

Teen substance abuse is a growing concern and it's important to understand why it's so common. One reason is that the teenage brain is still developing, particularly the prefrontal cortex responsible for decision-making, impulse control, and emotional regulation.

This means that teens are more likely to take risks and engage in impulsive behaviors, including using drugs and alcohol.

Additionally, teens may lack access to healthy coping mechanisms for stress or emotional pain. They may feel overwhelmed by academic or social pressures and turn to substances as a way of coping. Furthermore, the media often glamorizes drug use, making it seem like a cool or rebellious thing to do.

Finally, easy access to drugs and alcohol can also contribute to teen substance abuse. Many teens report obtaining substances from friends or family members who have prescriptions for them or from older siblings who can purchase them legally.

Understanding these factors can help parents, caregivers, and educators better address teen substance abuse by promoting healthy coping mechanisms, providing appropriate support during difficult times and reducing access to drugs and alcohol.


In conclusion, while teen substance use is common, it is important to recognize the risk factors that can increase the likelihood of developing a substance use disorder. Prevention and early intervention are crucial in addressing this issue.

By providing a supportive and non-judgmental environment, parents, caregivers, and educators can help teenagers make healthy choices and avoid the negative consequences of substance use.

Dr. Elizabeth Drew
Medical Director

Medical Director Dr. Elizabeth Drew graduated from Hahnemann University School of Medicine and completed her family practice residency at Lehigh Valley Hospital in Allentown PA. In 2005, she opened her family medicine office in Doylestown, and in 2008 she treated her first patient for opiate addiction.

Since then Dr. Drew has attained her board certification in Addiction Medicine, treated more than a thousand patients for addiction to opiates and alcohol, participated in programs to educate the community, traveled to Washington DC to educate our legislators, and served as Medical Director at some of the best addiction treatment programs in Pennsylvania.

She understands that addiction is a chronic disease that no one would choose to have, and her treatment philosophy is based on respect, compassion, and empowerment. She is excited to be the Medical Director of MPower Wellness and work to provide superior addiction treatment in Chester County.

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