How Does Teen Substance Abuse Affect Their Decision Making?

What parents should know about teens and drug and alcohol use

teenage booze at a house party

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As a parent, you may be worrying about what your teen is exposed to in terms of drugs and alcohol, and whether or not they are partaking in these substances. It's a valid fear. After all, teens who use drugs and alcohol are more likely to engage in various forms of risky behavior, which in turn may lead to increased sexual behavior (with the possibility of pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections [STIs], or even sexual assault), vehicular accidents, and other instances of fuzzy decision making.

For all of these reasons, drugs and alcohol pose a significant threat to your teen's health.

How Common Are These Negative Outcomes?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), alcohol is the most commonly used and abused drug among youth in the United States. As far as risky behavior goes:

  • Excessive drinking is responsible for more than 4,300 deaths among underage youth each year.
  • In 2010, there were approximately 189,000 emergency rooms visits by persons under age 21 for injuries and other conditions linked to alcohol.

In addition, the 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that, among high school students, during a span of 30 days:

  • 35 percent drank some amount of alcohol
  • 21 percent binge drank
  • 10 percent drove after drinking alcohol
  • 22 percent rode with a driver who had been drinking alcohol

Youth who drink alcohol are also more likely to experience:

  • school problems, such as higher absence and poor or failing grades
  • social problems, such as fighting and lack of participation in youth activities
  • legal problems, such as arrest for driving or physically hurting someone while drunk
  • unwanted, unplanned, and unprotected sexual activity
  • physical and sexual assault
  • higher risk for suicide and homicide
  • alcohol-related car crashes and other unintentional injuries, such as burns, falls and drowning
  • abuse of other drugs
  • death from alcohol poisoning
  • etc.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

Youth who start drinking before the age of 15 are also six times more likely to develop alcohol dependence or abuse later in life than those who begin drinking at or after the age of 21.

What Can Parents Do About Underage Drinking and Illegal Drug Use?

Many teens choose not to drink. They’re able to make healthy choices for themselves and they can resist any peer pressure they may experience around drinking or drug use.

Either way, however, parental involvement is one of the keys to preventing teens from drinking. Take steps to educate your teen about the dangers of drinking and conduct ongoing conversations about alcohol.

By Denise Witmer
Denise Witmer is a freelance writer and mother of three children, who has authored several books and countless articles on parenting teens since 1997.