Teen drug use is influenced by a number of factors, including heredity. Teens who carry genes associated with addiction are more likely to develop a substance use disorder.
Teen addiction is a problem in the United States. Though the rates of teen substance use have decreased in recent years, 16.3% of youth age 12–17 reported using illicit drugs and 31% reported using tobacco or alcohol in 2017. Addiction is hereditary, as it has been linked to certain genes within a person’s DNA. If your family carries a gene linked to increased susceptibility to addiction, your children may be at risk for developing a substance use disorder.
Genetics and Teen Drug Abuse
As we begin to understand more about DNA sequences and the codes they have that can influence our health, scientists have shown that there is a genetic influence on addiction. This means that certain genes in a person’s DNA could predispose them to develop a substance use disorder.
If addiction runs in your family, you may carry this type of gene. However, teens who have these genes and are more likely to develop a substance use disorder do not necessarily have parents who also have a substance use disorder. The presence of the gene alone does not necessarily mean that someone will become addicted to a substance.
Teen drug abuse can only begin if a teen tries a drug in the first place. The best way to avoid a substance use disorder is to abstain from using addictive substances. However, there are also other factors that influence the development of substance use disorder.
Other Addiction Risk Factors
There are other risk factors for addiction besides genetics that can make a teen more prone to developing a substance use disorder. Some of the factors influencing the risk for addiction include co-occurring mental health disorders and the teen’s home, school and social environment.
Mental Health Disorders
Mental health disorders and addictions commonly co-occur. There are theories that people who have mental health issues may use drugs or alcohol to cope with the symptoms of their mental health disorder. On the other hand, someone who has a mental health disorder may also be predisposed — genetically or otherwise — to risky behavior, including drug or alcohol use.
In teens, mental health issues can also co-occur with substance use disorders. In the past, it was reported that 4.6% of youths aged 12–17 met the criteria for a substance use disorder diagnosis. Of those teens, 50–71% had a co-occurring mental health disorder.
The environment a teen is exposed to on a daily basis can have a huge influence on their susceptibility to drug misuse. Environmental factors include the culture of a teen’s house or surrounding community, social situations, religious organizations, economic status and exposure to drugs or alcohol. Teens can experience peer pressure from friends or acquaintances at school to try drugs or alcohol. If a teen’s friends use alcohol or other drugs, they are significantly more likely to also use those substances.
Parents also have a significant influence on their children. Setting a good example and helping adolescents understand the dangers of using drugs can make a difference in their decision to use a drug when their parents are not around. Teens with parents who monitored their activities were less likely to use alcohol or marijuana, especially in teens who are risk-takers.
What Parents Can Do
Parents can help by talking to their children about drugs. This open communication is especially important if there is a history of addiction or mental health disorder in the family. If you’re a parent, explain to your children that they may have a genetic trait that makes them more likely to become addicted to drugs or alcohol. Help them understand the dangers of drugs and the consequences that addiction can have.
Parents can watch for signs of addiction or substance use in their children and intervene if they suspect their child is using drugs. Parents can also avoid keeping drugs or alcohol in the house, where teens might have access to it and set a good example for their children by not using drugs or alcohol themselves. Changing a teen’s home environment could make a difference in their susceptibility to drug or alcohol addiction.
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Winstanley, E.L., et al. “Adolescent Substance Abuse and Mental Health: Problem Co-Occurrence and Access to Services.“>Adolesce[…] to Services.” Journal of Child & Adolescent Substance Abuse, July 1, 2012. Accessed August 23, 2019.
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