Understanding Why Kids Use Drugs and Alcohol


Today’s teens are growing up in an environment with pressures, stress and priorities vastly different from when we were their age. If you’re concerned that your son or daughter might be using drugs or alcohol — or if you know they are — it’s important that we, as parents, consider why. Some teens turn to drugs and alcohol for a variety of reasons, like fitting insocializing, experiencing life transitions or dealing with emotional and psychological pain. Here’s why it’s important for you to recognize why kids might be drawn to substances and what you can do about it.

Keep in Mind:

  • Young brains are more vulnerable to drugs and alcohol. Research shows that the teen brain doesn’t fully develop until 25. Drugs and alcohol can alter this development, potentially affecting brain structure and function.
  • If there is a history of addiction in your family, if your child has mental health or behavioral issues, has suffered trauma or has impulse control problems, then your child has a much greater risk of developing a substance use problem. Be aware of these elevated risks and discuss it with your child regularly, as you would with any disease.


Many teens feel like an outsider and long to be included and liked by their peers. This need can be so strong that they engage in drinking or drug use to help make friends, fit in, be accepted or get in with a desired crowd. Drugs might provide an instant “in” with what may seem like a desirable social group.

If the kids your teen wants to hang out with are drinking or doing drugs, he or she may feel the need to participate as well, or risk being left out.

What Parents Can Do:

  • Get to know your kid’s friends and their parents – and talk with those parents especially when they are hosting parties and find out who is supervising, their stance on substances, will they be serving alcohol, etc.
  • Encourage your teen’s friends to hang out at your house: give them a private space if possible but keep an eye on them.
  • Talk to your teen about why it’s so important to fit in with this particular group. Explain to your child that real friends don’t make you do things you aren’t comfortable with. Tell stories (either from your own life or from history, books, movies, the news, etc.) of people who chose not to go along with the crowd — and achieved great things because of it.
  • If you feel your child is risking his or her health or safety, let her know that you are concerned and get help.


Many teens use drugs and alcohol to overcome insecurities, let their guard down and feel socially confident with others. Some see “partying” as a way to instantly bond with a group of kids, uniting with them in opposition to the “rules” of school, work — and parents.

Drugs may make teens feel that they are really open and relating to each other. Kids may come to believe that drugs are necessary to achieve close interaction with one another.

Some teens use drugs or alcohol because they’re curious or bored and see it as something to do or experiment with.

What Parents Can Do:

  • Find activities for your teen to socialize in a healthy, safe and supervised environment. Communicate your expectations and rules for when your teen goes out with friends, and include regular check-ins by texting or calling. Set and enforce curfews.
  • Encourage — and help — your child to socialize with friends in a public place instead of in someone’s empty home.
  • If your child is socializing at someone else’s home, know where he or she will be. Call the parents in advance to verify the occasion and location and that there will be supervision. Ask your child to call or text you halfway through the night (and set consequences if he or she doesn’t). If the activity seems inappropriate, express concern and keep your child home.
  • Assure your child that he or she can call you to be picked up whenever needed, no questions asked. Some families even agree on a code word for the child to text their parents to discreetly say, “Come get me.”
  • If your teen is staying over at a friend’s house, be sure to check in with them and speak with the parents who are hosting, if possible.
  • Supervise any parties in your home to make sure there is no alcohol or other drugs – and make sure your teens know the rules ahead of time. Learn about the social hosting laws in your state and what they can mean for your personal liability in the event of underage drinking in your home.
  • When your teen arrives home after a night out with friends, look her in the eye, smell her clothes and hair and ask her about her night. Although be aware that some ways that marijuana is used, like vaping and edibles, make it harder to detect.
  • If you sense your teen has been drinking or using drugs, be sure to have a conversation the next morning when he or she is sober.


Periods of transition in teens’ lives — like moving, divorce, puberty, changing schools, an illness or death in the family — can often be a time of upheaval, leading many teens to attempt to find solace in alcohol or drugs.

What Parents Can Do:
Pay even closer attention to your child’s behavior during—and AFTER—transitions, such as:


Some teens use alcohol or drugs to dull the pain in their lives. When they’re given a chance to take something to make them temporarily feel better, many can’t resist.

Some teens turn to drugs or alcohol to deal with the pressures of everyday teen drama or to escape from family problems, stress or issues with school or grades.

The pressures kids feel from social media – feeling left out, fear of missing out, feeling like everyone else has a perfect life – can become too much for kids.

Loneliness, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety disorder and other mental health issues lead many teens to use substances.

Furthermore, many of these issues occur in combinations, each compounding the intensity of the others.

What Parents Can Do:

  • Keep an eye on how your child is coping. Does he or she seem withdrawn or uninterested in the usual activities? These are signs that your child might be hiding something or need some guidance.
  • Remind your child that you are there for support and guidance – and that it’s important to you that she or he is healthy and happy and makes safe choices.
  • Offer empathy and compassion. Let your child know you understand. The teen years can be tough. Acknowledge that everyone struggles sometimes, but alcohol is not a useful or healthy way to cope with problems. Let your child know that he or she can trust you.
  • If you notice extreme and lasting changes in mood, behavior, grades, attention span, or if your son or daughter seems depressed or not herself, etc., take your child to a doctor or therapist for a professional health assessment to find out what’s causing the problem.
  • Model healthy coping skills. Show your kids how to learn from mistakes and disappointments. For example, after a long day, instead of drinking a glass of wine or beer, try stretching or deep breathing. Promote healthy coping skills for managing stress: exercise, take a walk, practice yoga, meditation or mindfulness.
  • Brainstorm together healthy ways to help your child manage the stress in her/his life. (Ex: More sleep, yoga, recreational sports, volunteering, etc.) Let your child offer suggestions and help him/her think through the ideas. Help teach your teen social coping strategies. Explain to your child that it’s okay to make mistakes – that’s how we learn. At the end of each day, call attention to all that she has accomplished. Be sure to point out these positive efforts.
  • Remind her that you care deeply about her health and well-being and love her no matter what.
  • If your child is suffering, reassure her that you will seek out appropriate professional help and then do just that.
How to Talk with Your Son or Daughter about Drugs and Alcohol
Productive communication with your teen or young adult about alcohol and drugs doesn’t always have to feel like you’re giving the third degree. Remain calm, relax and follow the tips below to ensure that your child hears what you have to say — and visa versa.

  • Try to be objective and open. If you want to have a productive conversation with your child, do your best to keep an open mind and remain curious. Your child is more likely to be receptive this way.
  • Ask open-ended questions. These are questions that elicit more than just a “yes” or “no” response and will lead to a more engaging conversation. For example, instead of asking, “Do your friends smoke marijuana?” you can try, “What do your friends think of the new marijuana laws?”
  • Let your teen know they’re being heard. Use active listening and reflect back what you are hearing — either verbatim, or just the sentiment. For example, you can say, “I’m hearing that you feel overwhelmed, and that you think drinking helps you relax. Is that right?”
  • Think about activities that can be healthy, fulfilling substitutes to their substance use or ways to help them learn coping skills to that are more effective than substance use in addressing underlying problems.
  • If your child’s interested in drinking or using drugs, ask why. This gets your teen to think about her future, what her boundaries are around drinking – and some of the possible negative consequences (she may be late to practice, do something stupid in front of her friends, feel hung over). It will also give you insight into what’s important to her.