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The Spread of Substance Abuse Among Teens

Substance abuse is frighteningly widespread among our nation’s youth.
By Dennis and Barbara Rainey


After a speaking engagement in a large city, Barbara and I were on our way to the airport with a host couple. As we rode along, getting better acquainted, the couple began telling us about their lives. Both had accomplished much in their careers, and as is true with so many American families, they enjoyed the blessings of ample material success.

The conversation then took a serious turn. Their faces saddened as they related the story of how their only son had begun to pull away from them as he moved into adolescence.

“I should have picked up on the clues that he gave us from the very beginning,” the father said. “He began to dress in a counter-cultural fashion. His behavior became that of a recluse, not letting us into his life.”

The father admitted that his own scrambled priorities had distracted him from his family and had allowed his son too much freedom. He grimly acknowledged that he had allowed his son to push him out of his life at a time when his son most needed him.

The young man had started using drugs and then became hooked. His drug habit had placed him in a lifestyle and with a crowd that put even his life in jeopardy.

After several failed attempts to extricate their son from this drug culture, finally the mom and dad literally had to steal their son from this harmful peer group and ship him off to a rehabilitation institution on the opposite side of the United States.

As I listened to this chilling story, I thought Why does this happen?

The reasons are somewhat unique in every home, but the parents had already verbalized what is often a common theme: A father working hard to provide, but probably too busy; a mom also with a full plate; and a preteen or teenager left operating without enough involvement from his parents, tumbling into a dangerous trap, often with the assistance of an influential peer group.

Substance abuse is frighteningly widespread among our nation’s youth. A recent survey of more than 100,000 students in sixth through 12th grade found that 29.5 percent of them reported using an illicit drug at least once in the past 12 months. (That compared to 18.6 percent who gave the same response in a study conducted about a decade earlier.)(1)

The survey also reported that among just the 12th graders, 40.8 percent had used an illicit drug in the past year. Looking at alcohol use alone, 75.6 percent of the seniors in high school reported having at least one drink in the past year.(2)

And do not ignore the issue of smoking. One study found that of students in grades six through eight, 31.1 percent had smoked cigarettes at least once in the past year. Of those in grades nine through 12, 49.2 percent had lit up at least once in the last 12 months.(3) It has been well documented that most adult smokers began the habit as teenagers.

That is astounding. Frightening. Why is this stuff, from the hard-core substances—alcohol and drugs—to the soft-core substances—cigarettes, uppers, downers, inhalants, diet pills, and other over-the-counter medications–such a trap to our youth?

We believe there are four primary reasons that teenagers end up as substance abusers:

  • Rebellion/cry for help
  • Stress /seeking escape
  • Curiosity/mind expansion
  • Peer pressure/mentor craving

Most parents would probably not be surprised that a child’s rebellion or emotional hunger might drive a child toward use of alcohol or drugs. But stress?

David Elkind, noted specialist in adolescent psychology, writes: “Young people use drugs for the same reason adults do, to reduce stress. Alcohol is the intoxicant of choice among teenagers.”(4)

Over the years we have seen pressure escalate on teens to do well in school, to be involved in activities, and to have a job. This adult-like stress on children who are still growing up may be unprecedented. Should we be surprised that substance abuse has skyrocketed among our youth?

An Emotional Thirst

Parents must stay connected and, if need be, aggressively involved in their child’s life to prevent him from quenching an emotional thirst in artificial ways. We believe that one of the primary reasons a child drinks alcohol, for example, is because he does not feel enough love and acceptance at home. Taking a drink or smoking a joint can reduce the pain and stress caused by the insecurities of adolescence.

I’ll never forget talking to Benjamin the first semester he attended the university. He made an observation about why his friends drank. “Dad, it’s as though they don’t like themselves when they are sober.”

I agree with him. It’s because they may have grown up in a home where they didn’t experience love and acceptance and feel good about who God made them to be. In contrast, by not drinking you’re saying, “I like who God made me, and I don’t need something extra to make me like myself.”

An excellent way to help test your child’s values related to substance use is to have frequent discussions. We have talked on a number of occasions at the dinner table, even when our children were little, about the lives of people whose marriages and families had been ruined by alcohol or drugs. So from a young age our children heard about the dangers of drugs and knew the real-life stories behind them.

A great laboratory for these talks is the family room. While watching athletic events on television, you can count on a beer commercial rolling in about every 10 minutes. Ask your child, “How valid is the lifestyle being presented in these ads? Is it true that getting high brings happiness and no problems?”

Movies also provide opportunities. Samuel and I were watching a movie, a decent movie, and in the middle of it there was drinking. I said, “Now, why are they throwing that in there, Samuel? They’re saying that’s the way to have fun, that drinking is respectable. I want you to know that drinking isn’t the way to happiness.”

Alcohol and driving. As your child gets older and may be riding in cars with older teens, keep your antenna high and don’t assume anything. You must know something about the teenagers your child is riding with. And if you ever suspect anyone is drinking and driving, never hesitate to intervene before it is too late. Each of our children has known that he will lose his privileges to drive for an extended period of time if we ever find him drinking and driving.

Work diligently to stay connected with your child. Robert Blum, reporting on a study done with 90,000 seventh- through 12th-graders nationwide, said: “Kids have less emotional distress when they feel connected. They experience fewer suicidal thoughts, fewer suicidal attempts. They are less involved with interpersonal violence. They smoke less, drink less, use marijuana less, have a later onset of the age of intercourse—everything you can think of. Connectedness with parents protects adolescents.”(5)

We could not say it any better—stay very close to your child.


1) “Student Use of Most Drugs Reaches Highest Level in Nine Years—More Report Getting ‘Very High, Bombed, or Stoned,’” PRIDE, Inc., Press Release, Sept. 25, 1996. Retrieved electronically from the Internet at www.health.org/pubs/96pride/pr96.htm, March 13, 1998.
2) PRIDE, Inc., Press Release.
3) PRIDE, Inc., Press Release.
4) David Elkind, All Grown Up and No Place to Go, Revised Edition (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1998), pp. 22, 220. 5) “Teenagers close to parents not as likely to drink, smoke,” Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph, 10 Sept. 1997, p.1.

Adapted from Parenting Today’s Adolescent: Helping Your Child Avoid the Traps of the Preteen and Teen Years. Copyright 1998 by Dennis and Barbara Rainey. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson, Inc., Publishers.



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