Protecting Your Teen from Self-Medication

As teenagers grow and seek new experiences, parents begin to worry about the risks associated with these new experiences. Teen substance abuse can have a substantial negative impact on the lives of teens and their families, leading to addiction, co-occurring mental illness, and even death. Learn more about self-medication, substance abuse, and addiction in teens, and how you can help your teen overcome peer pressure to abuse drugs and alcohol. 

Substance Abuse and Self-Medication in Teens

Teen substance abuse is more widespread than many realize. By twelfth grade, nearly 70 percent of students have tried alcohol, and about 50 percent of students between ninth and twelfth grade reported using marijuana. Additionally, 2 percent of twelfth graders reported misusing prescription medication. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco are most commonly used by adolescents. 

Causes of Substance Abuse in Teens

Teens are renowned for their emotional intensity, mood fluctuations, and limit testing behaviors. and for some, experimenting with drugs and alcohol may seem like a rite of passage. However, it is not normal teen behavior to abuse substances. Understanding why some teens abuse alcohol or use illicit drugs is a crucial step in preventing substance abuse in your teen. 

1. Coping with emotional and psychological pain

Substances offer perceived escape for people of all ages—a chance to escape reality or to escape emotional or even physical pain. Unfortunately, a lot of pain is caused by relational isolation, loneliness, bullying, abuse, trauma, the loss of someone close, or other emotional wounds, some of which may have been formed in childhood. Emotional wounds are not always visible, but they often hurt subconsciously and cause us to hurt and act out. Emotional distress, pain, and suffering are intertwined with physical pain and using substances to turn off and avoid the pain becomes addictive.

2. A co-occurring mental health issue

Rates of self-medication tend to increase with the increase of co-occurring mental health issues.  The compounding effects of multiple issues often result in higher rates of substance use. The pain from depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or other mental health issues can cause you to seek relief from substances. Self-medication will only compound your teen’s problems because many mental health issues are made much worse by using substances. 

3. Fitting in with the crowd

Feelings of needing to belong are more pronounced during the teen years. If your child’s peer group is drinking and using drugs, your teen may feel like they need also to use drugs to keep their friends. It may feel like this is any path to acceptance. Additionally, when a person uses drugs or drinking alcohol, they may feel more confident when high or drunk, ultimately feeling like they need the drug to achieve a certain level of social interaction. Abusing substances to socially fit in often results in emotional and physical addiction to the substances.

4. Using drugs to navigate life transitions

The teen years are filled with change. From personal changes to school changes, teens have to navigate a lot of life transitions. Some teens use drugs or alcohol in an attempt to escape and find temporary relief from the distress and anxiety associated with life changes. 

For any of these reasons, drug usage is simply a means to escape, and the consequences add up more quickly than your teen may realize.

Risks of Teen Self-Medication

The earlier a  teen begins using substances, the greater the chance that they will continue to use and abuse substances, leading to damaging addictions later in life. 

In addition to long-lasting addictions, teen substance abuse has the following risks: 

  • Legal issues because substance use is illegal for minors
  • Physical health problems later in life, including heart disease, high blood pressure, and sleep disorders 
  • Participating in other risky behaviors such as unprotected sex and reckless driving
  • The worsening of any co-occurring mental health disorders
  • Relational dysfunction and overwhelming feelings of shame, insecurity, and hopelessness

How to Protect Your Teen from Substance Abuse

Although teenage self-medication and substance abuse are widespread, parents can play a crucial role in helping a teen avoid or quit addictive behaviors. Non-shaming communication is essential to helping your teen navigate a challenging time in their life. These tips can help your teen avoid or overcome harmful self-medication: 

  • Ensure that parents have established consistent and reliable boundaries and limits which are based in emotional and physical safety. 
  • Identify that parents are role models for teens and need to behave accordingly
  • Take a vested interest in supervision during parties and activities.
  • Open your home for socializing so that you can get to know your teen’s friends and keep a watchful eye out for any risky behaviors. 
  • Be sure your teen knows you are available to pick them up from anywhere, at any time, with no questions asked. 
  • Model healthy behaviors and show your teen that you can be social without alcohol.
  • Communicate your expectations with your teen for their curfew and institute regular check-ins.
  • Set aside one-on-one time with your child to do fun activities that don’t involve alcohol.
  • Model healthy coping mechanisms during your life transitions.
  • Brainstorm ways to manage stress when the family is coping with a big transition.
  • Seek professional help when your child is suffering. 

Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. We’re driven to find the help your family needs. If you’re looking for support, contact us today!

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of outpatient centers and residential programs offering premier mental health treatment for preteens, teens, and young adults. Dedicated to its big mission of reversing the trends of teen and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark offers a robust continuum of care with different levels of service and programming; has a deep legacy of over 25 years serving youths; works with families to adjust treatment in real time to improve results; treats the entire family using an evidence-supported approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual services, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), therapeutic day treatment programs, also known as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), residential treatment, and outdoor therapy, visit