Substance Use Disorder In Teens: Signs and Symptoms

As teenagers navigate the challenges of adolescence, they are often exposed to various substances that can lead to addiction and other health complications. This can include alcohol and drugs like opioid, heroin, etc.

Substance Use Disorder (SUD) in teens is a condition marked by an unhealthy pattern of using substances like alcohol or drugs, leading to significant impairment or distress. This includes difficulties in school, relationships, and changes in behavior or mood.

SUD in adolescents is particularly concerning due to its impact on the developing brain and potential for long-term health consequences. Recognizing the early signs of SUD in teenagers is crucial, as early detection can pave the way for timely intervention, preventing long-term consequences and ensuring a healthier future for our young generation.

What is Substance Use Disorder (SUD)?

Substance Use Disorder, commonly referred to as SUD, is a medical condition characterized by the compulsive use of substances despite harmful consequences. It can range from mild to severe and can lead to addiction, a chronic disease where drug-seeking behavior becomes involuntary and difficult to control.

In teenagers, SUD often manifests differently than in adults. The adolescent brain is still developing, making it more susceptible to the effects of drugs and alcohol. This vulnerability can lead to rapid progression from experimentation to regular use and, eventually, to addiction.

Furthermore, teenagers might use substances as a way to cope with the pressures of school, peer relationships, and the emotional challenges of growing up. Understanding the unique nuances of teen SUD is essential for effective prevention and treatment.

Common Substances Abused by Teens

Teenagers can be exposed to a myriad of substances, some of which are more commonly abused than others. Here’s a look at the substances most frequently misused by adolescents:

  • Alcohol: Despite age restrictions, alcohol remains one of the most accessible and commonly abused substances among teens. Binge drinking, in particular, is a concerning trend.
  • Kratom: Originally from Southeast Asia, Kratom is a tropical tree whose leaves are often ground up and consumed for their stimulant effects at low doses and opioid-like effects at higher doses. Its increasing availability online has made it a substance of interest among teenagers.
  • Marijuana: With changing legal statuses and perceptions, marijuana use has seen a rise among teenagers. It’s essential to understand the long-term cognitive effects, especially on the developing teen brain.
  • Delta 8: A cannabinoid derived from hemp and closely related to Delta 9 THC (the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana), Delta 8 offers a milder “high” and has become popular due to its legal gray area in many states.
  • Prescription Drugs: Opioids, sedatives, and stimulants, often sourced from home medicine cabinets, have become a significant concern. Misuse can lead to addiction and even fatal overdoses.
  • Tobacco and E-cigarettes: While traditional cigarette use has declined, vaping and e-cigarettes have surged in popularity, often marketed with flavors appealing to younger audiences.
  • Hallucinogens: Substances like LSD, magic mushrooms, and PCP can alter perception, mood, and various cognitive processes.
  • Inhalants: Common household products like glue, aerosol sprays, and solvents can be misused as inhalants, leading to immediate health risks.

Early Signs of SUD in Teenagers

Detecting SUD early can make a significant difference in a teen’s recovery journey. Here are some signs to watch out for:

  • Behavioral Signs:
    • Changes in School Performance: A sudden drop in grades or lack of interest in schoolwork.
    • Skipping Classes: Regularly missing school without a valid reason.
    • Secretive Behavior: Being unusually secretive about their activities or whereabouts.
    • Changes in Friend Groups: Drifting away from old friends and associating with a new crowd, especially if the new friends are known substance users.
  • Physical Signs:
    • Bloodshot Eyes: Consistently red or glazed eyes.
    • Unexplained Weight Loss or Gain: Rapid changes in weight without a clear reason.
    • Frequent Nosebleeds: Especially relevant for substances that are snorted.
    • Changes in Sleep Patterns: Insomnia, oversleeping, or irregular sleep schedules.
  • Emotional Signs:
    • Mood Swings: Rapid and intense mood changes without apparent triggers.
    • Unexplained Outbursts: Sudden episodes of aggression or emotional breakdowns.
    • Increased Irritability: Getting irritated over minor issues.
    • Signs of Depression or Anxiety: Prolonged periods of sadness, hopelessness, or excessive worry.
  • Social Signs:
    • Withdrawal from Family and Friends: Spending less time with loved ones and more time in isolation.
    • Loss of Interest in Hobbies: Abandoning activities they once loved.
    • Isolation: Preferring to spend time alone, especially in their rooms.

Awareness of these signs can empower parents, educators, and guardians to intervene early, providing the necessary support and guidance to teens in need.

The Dangers of Ignoring the Signs

Ignoring the early signs of SUD in teenagers can have dire consequences. The adolescent years are formative, and substance misuse can derail a teen’s future in various ways:

  • Mental Health Implications: Substance use can exacerbate or trigger mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, and psychosis. Moreover, the emotional turmoil of addiction can lead to feelings of hopelessness and even suicidal thoughts.
  • Academic Consequences: SUD can result in declining school performance, truancy, and even dropping out. This can limit future educational and career opportunities.
  • Physical Health Risks: Chronic substance use can lead to a host of health issues, from liver damage due to excessive alcohol consumption to respiratory problems from smoking or vaping. Additionally, there’s the ever-present risk of overdose, which can be fatal.
  • Legal Troubles: Engaging in illegal activities to procure substances or while under the influence can lead to arrests, juvenile detention, and a criminal record.
  • Strained Relationships: Substance misuse can strain relationships with family and friends, leading to feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Understanding these potential consequences underscores the importance of early intervention and support.

How Parents and Guardians Can Help

Parents and guardians play a pivotal role in guiding teens away from the pitfalls of SUD. Here are some ways they can make a difference:

  • Open Communication: Foster an environment where teens feel comfortable discussing their feelings, pressures, and any substance use without fear of judgment or punishment.
  • Educate: Equip teens with factual information about the dangers of substance misuse. Knowledge can be a powerful deterrent.
  • Stay Involved: Be present in your teen’s life. Attend school events, know their friends, and be aware of their activities.
  • Seek Professional Help: If you suspect your teen is struggling with SUD, consult with professionals. Therapists, counselors, and treatment centers like Bright Path can provide invaluable guidance and support.
  • Lead by Example: Model healthy behaviors and coping mechanisms. If you consume alcohol, do so responsibly, and discuss the reasons for your choices with your teen.
  • Create a Supportive Environment: Ensure your home is a safe space where your teen feels valued and understood. This can make all the difference in their recovery journey.

Navigating Teen SUD: Partial Hospitalization and Intensive Outpatient Programs

For adolescents facing Substance Use Disorder (SUD), finding the right level of care is crucial. The Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP) offers a comprehensive treatment approach, allowing teens to engage in structured therapeutic sessions during the day while returning to their homes in the evenings. This balance provides intensive support without complete residential immersion. On the flip side, the Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) offers flexibility, with scheduled treatment sessions several times a week, making it suitable for teens transitioning back to daily life or those who need consistent support without the intensity of a PHP. Both programs are tailored to address the unique challenges teens face, ensuring they’re on a path to recovery.

Bright Path’s Role in Supporting Teens with SUD

At Bright Path, we recognize the unique challenges teenagers face when grappling with Substance Use Disorder. Our approach is tailored to address these specific needs:

  • Specialized Programs: Our treatment programs are designed with adolescents in mind. We focus on age-appropriate skills education, process groups, and therapeutic interventions that resonate with teens.
  • Safe, Judgment-Free Environment: We prioritize creating a space where teenagers feel welcomed, valued, and free from judgment. This environment fosters trust and encourages open communication, essential components of the healing process.
  • Experienced Clinicians: Our team comprises professionals who have extensive experience working with teens. Their expertise ensures that each adolescent receives care that is both compassionate and effective.
  • Holistic Approach: Beyond addressing the substance use, we delve into the underlying causes, be it trauma, mental health issues, or societal pressures. Our holistic approach ensures that teens are equipped to lead fulfilling, substance-free lives post-treatment.

Empowering a Brighter Future: The Path Forward

Substance Use Disorder in teenagers is a pressing concern, but with early detection, understanding, and the right support, recovery is attainable. As parents, educators, and guardians, staying informed about the signs of SUD and the available resources is paramount. At Bright Path, we’re committed to lighting the way for teens, guiding them towards a brighter, healthier future. If you suspect a teenager in your life is struggling with SUD, don’t hesitate to reach out. Together, we can make a difference.

Author: Shantel Sullivan Ed.D., LCSW
Dr. Shantel Sullivan, Ed.D., LCSW, serves as the CEO of Bright Path with a rich background in residential adolescent treatment, adult outpatient services, and academia, leveraging over a decade of licensed social work experience in New York and North Carolina. Her academic credentials include a BA in Sociology, an MSW and a graduate certificate in addictions counseling from the University of New England, culminating in a doctoral degree in Educational Leadership focused on transformational leadership. Beyond her clinical expertise, Dr. Sullivan contributes to the field as a national speaker, educator, and editor of the Bright Path Teen Mental Health Blog, committed to enhancing access to evidence-based mental health care for adolescents and their families.
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