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Common Risk Factors for Adolescent Addiction

Addiction is a serious issue in the United States, and adolescents are not exempt from its destructive effects. Based on a national survey conducted in 2015, about 1.3 million adolescents, or about 1 in 20, needed treatment for a substance use disorder.1 Why some adolescents develop an addiction while others do not is not fully understood. There is no simple, single cause; rather, it is thought that a combination of social, environmental, and biological factors contributes to the onset of substance use behaviors and, eventually, addiction. Some major risk factors for adolescent substance abuse include:2

Abuse

As noted in numerous research studies, abuse is a major risk factor in the development of substance use and addiction. Abuse can take different forms, and while many adolescents experience it, only some abuse survivors go on to develop an addiction.2,3 For those who do, it is possible they turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with the trauma, depression, anxiety, and other emotions that can result from abuse.2
Abuse can occur on a number of levels. Some of the more commonly seen types of abuse associated with adolescent substance use disorders include:2,4

Social Problems

Of course, not all adolescents who develop an addiction have a history of abuse. Other factors, such as social influences that are present in childhood or adolescence, may also influence the risk of addiction. Some influential social risk factors are:2,6,7

  • Bullying: Interestingly, this is a risk factor whether the adolescent is the perpetrator or the victim. Teens of both genders who are the victims of bullying are more likely to use marijuana, inhalants, and hard drugs. Overall, bullying victims are twice as likely to use substances as teens who have not been bullied.
  • Negative peer influences: Teens’ friends play an important role in the development of addiction too. Associating with peer groups who use drugs and alcohol is a substantial risk factor associated with greater rates of substance abuse.
  • Peer pressure: This risk factor contributes to higher rates of cigarette and alcohol use. Adolescents who reported using alcohol or other drugs prior to age 13 noted that the opinion of their peers was highly important to them, ranking it as higher than their parents’ opinions. Adolescents who used substances at an older age did not value the opinion of their peers as much.
  • Gang affiliation: That this is a risk factor for drug abuse is not surprising given the antisocial and risk-taking behaviors that are prevalent among those in gangs. And while not all gang-involved youths use drugs, drug abuse is more likely with gang affiliation than with other types of negative peer groups.

Individual Variables

Although abuse and social influences can be major risk factors for adolescents developing addiction, there are several individual variables, such as the presence of pre-existing mental health issues, that could also impact the likelihood of developing addiction, including:2,3,8-12

Family Problems

In addition to the numerous social and individual risk factors for developing a substance use disorder, family problems can increase the risk of a teen developing an addiction too. Specific risk factors include:2,7,13-16
Child watching parents fight

  • Divorce: Reasons related to divorce that contribute to an increased risk of an addiction include less supervision in single-parent families, more financial strain, and emotional distress. One study indicated that teens in a single-parent home were 20% more likely to use marijuana than teens in a 2-parent home.
  • Domestic abuse: Teens who witness domestic violence are 2­ to 3 times more likely to smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, and use illicit drugs than those who do not. Researchers believe that children exposed to domestic violence experience extreme stress and use substances to cope.
  • Neglect and a lack of supervision: Parents who do not pay attention to what a child is doing increase the risk that they will engage in substance abuse. Adolescents who are unmonitored by parents and left to supervise themselves are more likely to use illicit substances. Conversely, parents who supervise their teens and enforce rules can reduce the risk of substance use. A recent study showed that adolescents with authoritative mothers (high in empathy and maintaining healthy boundaries) are 43% less likely to use marijuana and 38% less likely to binge drink alcohol.
  • Parental substance use: Parents who abuse substances to cope with stress are more likely to have children who follow their example, and having alcohol or drugs in the house makes it easier for kids to access them too. Adolescents were about 2.5 times more likely to use drugs if a parent used drugs or alcohol.
  • Permissive attitudes toward drugs and alcohol: Parents who view experimenting with drugs or alcohol as normal teenage behavior more often have children who use drugs and alcohol. Parents who know their children are using drugs but make little effort to intervene also increase the risk of substance abuse in adolescents. Teens who perceive their parents as permissive toward drugs and alcohol were about 30% more likely to use these substances than teens who felt their parents disapproved.
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