Young adulthood is a time when many long-lasting habits are formed, and while many of these can be healthy and positive, some of them can be detrimental. One such detriment can include substance use and misuse. If you have a loved one who is a teenager or young adult, it is never too early to be aware of their habits and remain vigilant of the particular risks in this age group.

What Puts Youth at Risk?

Young people are especially susceptible to many risk-taking behaviors. This is because of the prefrontal cortex; the brain’s decision-making and impulse-inhibiting center. This crucial part of the brain does not finish developing until a person is in their 20s. One of these risky behaviors is trying drugs and alcohol, which then, in turn, makes engaging in other risky activities, like unprotected sex, more likely. 

When someone uses drugs or alcohol at a young age, they are more likely to develop substance use disorder later in life. They also experience an increased risk of severe health problems as an adult, like heart disease and hypertension.

A variety of factors explain what makes drugs and alcohol appealing to youth. One explanation is simply curiosity. If they hear that certain substances can make them have more fun and they are in a situation where it is available to them, curiosity might win out. It is also likely that many youths do not grasp some of the severe consequences of these substances both in the short-term and later on. 

Additionally, some youth may incorrectly utilize controlled substances for the purpose of achieving higher grades in school and superior performance in sporting events. Still, others may go with the flow in a social setting where friends are using substances in order to be part of the group 

In addition to these social pressures and desires to experiment, a teenager or young adult may be predisposed toward early substance use by certain factors completely out of their control. For example, there is a genetic component to substance use. Having family members who use substances or being exposed to substances in the womb are risk factors. 

Additionally, experiencing abuse, neglect, violence, and other adverse childhood experiences while young can push a person toward substance use. Furthermore, lacking sufficient parental supervision as a child can lead to a host of problems later on, including substance misuse. If you know a young person who might have any of these risk factors, it is important to be aware of their increased risk for experimenting with drugs and alcohol at a young age.

How Do I Know if Someone Is Using Substances?

It is likely that a young person’s substance use will not occur under the watchful eyes of family members, but rather alone or with friends. This can make it difficult to know if someone you love is engaging in these risky behaviors. Although, there are some warning signs that can point you in the right direction. Here are some questions to ask yourself about what you observe:

  • Has my loved one been demonstrating rapid swings or changes from how they normally act? Youth may exhibit fluctuating moods and eating patterns depending on the substances they are using.
  • Has my loved one been spending more time alone? While teenagers and young adults often enjoy increased privacy as they grow up, excessive isolation can be worrisome.
  • Does my loved one change friend groups often? While a changing and developing identity is a normal aspect of maturing and can lead to ending friendships they have outgrown, being under the influence can also make it hard to sustain relationships. Additionally, youth may be roped into a new friend group because of access to substances that they did not have previously.
  • Does my loved one seem depressed? A sad affect, fatigue, and lack of personal hygiene can all be signs that something is amiss. If these are not directly related to substance use but rather to a mental health condition, it is still important to intervene, as these conditions often go hand-in-hand.
  • Has my loved one been lying and stealing? To avoid getting caught, a young adult may lie about where they are going and who they are spending time with. Additionally, stealing from a family member’s wallet may be the only way to financially sustain their substance use.
  • Has my loved one been struggling academically? Substance use can impair cognitive function, making it hard to focus and succeed in school.

Noticing one or several of these warning signs might indicate that your loved one is secretly struggling with a serious problem.

How Do I Help?

The best way to help youth is by preventing substance use in the first place. The key to prevention is maintaining a strong, open relationship with your loved one. Ensuring an open channel of communication is essential, as is providing both encouragement and boundaries.

As a parent, walking this line between firm boundaries and emotional support will set your child up for success in avoiding the use of drugs and alcohol. Prioritizing effective supervision is part of this process. Knowing your child’s friends and forming relationships with their parents when possible can allow you to have confidence in your child’s social circle. 

Establishing clear expectations and consequences leaves no ambiguity about the rules, and actively listening to your child’s thoughts and emotions will make them feel heard and supported. Children of parents who engage in this type of supervision are more likely to make better decisions, such as avoiding substance use.

If your child is using substances, it does not mean you are to blame. There is help available, such as interventions and family recovery programs.

Being a teenager and young adult brings with it many changes and many exciting opportunities, like graduating high school, going to college, or starting a job. It is a time of looking toward the future with hope and excitement. Unfortunately, the risk of substance misuse can pose a barrier to this future and derail these goals. Taking the steps to prevent this from happening is important, and it is even more crucial to intervene if your loved one has been using substances. Having that conversation can be hard, but you are not alone. Family-Centered Services is dedicated to working with your family every step of the way to ensure your loved one’s success in treatment and sustained well-being. We offer intervention preparation and education, individual and family therapy, case management, a Family Recovery Program, and sober monitoring. Please reach out at (509) 991-5822 to learn how we can help.