How to Know if Your Teen Is at Risk for Addiction

How to Know if Your Teen Is at Risk for Addiction

Is your teen taking one of three major pathways that longitudinal studies found make them at an increased risk for addiction? Do they have the traits of being bold and adventurous or sad and cautious? Or do they have both sets, where they want and fear novelty? Studies have found becoming an addict isn’t just about being stricken with the ‘lack of restraint’ gene coding, it’s also about having a compulsive side…whether it be getting the best grades or getting into trouble… it’s the extremes we need to be aware of as parents. 

As one former addict remembers his tendency for extremes in Scientific American, “I had trouble stopping intellectual engagement, not starting it.”  

Scientists and former addicts are saying teens can be all over the board with their complex personalities, but they all seem to have issues with impaired self-regulation due to either too much inhibition or too little inhibition. It’s the moderate behaviors that studies find less conducive to addiction. 

Addiction is an umbrella term for substance abuse or dependence. But today, parents are finding some teens—not all of them—but some of them—choose their vice: alcohol, drugs, smoking, vaping, screens, social media, gambling–you name it. If only parents could predict which kids are vulnerable to this unhealthy path, they could help them. The problem is knowing when a curiosity has turned into an addiction. 

After all, we know addiction never ends well. The more you do it, the more your body and mind suffers. Years of smoking heightens the risk of lung disease, alcohol and drugs destroy almost every part of the body, and internet and screen addiction turn sweet children into unmotivated zombies. The abuse of drugs and alcohol can worsen a mental health disorder, lead to academic suspection, or expulsion, cause a DUI, encourage unprotected sex or impulsive, aggressive assaults. 

Behavioral therapies, interventions, counseling, and alternative treatments can help those who want to kick bad habits. But what happens when the habit turns into an addiction? Are we at the point of no return? 

Not at all, but there are ways to pinpoint which teens in your life are at risk for addiction.  

According to Maia Szalavitz, author of Unbroken Brain, the addictive personality is a myth. You can’t just spend five minutes with a kid and know what they will try and how long they’ll try it. 

A review of her book in Scientific American stated “research finds no universal character traits that are common to all addicted people.” She writes in her book that Alcoholics Anonymous proclaim that addicts have a defective or selfish personality, perpetuating the false notion that an “addictive personality” is weak, unreliable, selfish, and out of control. 

What Szalavitz argues is that instead of parents looking for personality traits that might gear their child toward addiction, it’s often better to look for which children are at high risk. 

The article said Szalavitz (who was a misunderstood teen herself, and later became an addict in college) sees children who develop addictions as outliers in many ways. 

Some are antisocial and callous, yet others are overly moralistic and sensitive. The most impulsive and eager to try new things are at the highest risk, as well as those who are compulsive and fear novelty. “It is extremes of personality and temperament—some of which are associated with talents, not deficits, that elevates risk.” 

So a teen in the gifted program with a high IQ would be at risk? According to Szalavitz, yes. Surprisingly, straight A students have higher rates of drug use than those with an average IQ.  Most of the time, addictions are developed as a way to cope with difficult situations. The brain’s “reward circuit” is triggered whenever someone experiences the pleasurable effects of getting what they love to do or eat.

Be Aware of Risk of Addiction

“No matter how good you are, at some point your kids are gonna have to create their own independence and think that Mom and Dad aren’t cool, just to establish themselves. That’s what adolescence is about. They’re gonna go through that no matter what.”
Eddie Vedder

Teenagers are often seeking thrill and adventure in their lives. There’s no need to worry if they ask impulsively every once in a while, get into trouble occasionally, or break some rules. However, parents need to establish a relationship based on trust and communication so they know what their kids are doing. You need to be a part of their lives, and though they may act like everyone and everything is cooler than you, your position in their lives has never been more important. Here are seven ways your teen may be at risk for addiction. If you stay on top of it. The addiction may never have a chance. Good luck. You got this!  According to, there are some signs we can look for in our teens that may help us understand why they are at risk for addiction and what we can do about it. The first sign is a troubling family life.

1.  Family Blues

As much as we want to blame your kids’ problems on crazy times! Crazy world! Crazy internet! We sometimes have to look no further than our own homes to discover our lifestyle has put our teens at risk for addiction. When teens experience family problems: such as divorce, addiction in the home, issues, mental and physical health issues, and financial woes, these overwhelming issues may trigger insecurity, depression, and compulsive behaviors.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), teens with parents or relatives who abuse drugs or alcohol are more prone to developing an addiction. You might be a sober parent, but your spouse— drinking every night after work and raging on the kids—has just as much of a negative effect on your teen, and it puts them at a high risk for addiction themselves. 

If you want to spare your teen what you’ve had to suffer in the home, protect them by involving them in the decisions of the home. Talk to them. Ask them how they feel about family problems. Teach them tools to cope in a healthy way. They may not have control over what happens in the home, but they can control how they react and respond to things that they don’t like.

2.  Mental Health Issues

According to an HHS study, impulse control issues are a key feature in psychiatric disorders such as bipolar, borderline personality disorder, and ADHD. Key nodes within the frontostriatal circuitry regulating impulsivity are also implicated in other cognitive processes that relate to addiction. Scientists have recently linked learning disabilities with addiction, and the response to reward-paired stimuli is a new area to study and identify biomarkers for susceptibility to addiction. 

One HHS study found behavioral disorders as the strongest predictors of addiction, with the broad categories of any mood or anxiety disorder also associated with the onset of substance abuse. Stronger associations were observed for bipolar disorder than other mood disorders, while five of seven anxiety disorders (panic, specific and social phobia, PTSD, and separation anxiety) were predictive as well. Parents who know that their children already have certain mental health issues can be on the defense when it comes to substance abuse. Your child may look for a way to get rid of symptoms or change their mood temporarily, and if they are taking medications now for their condition, they may be all too used to using them to regulate.

3.  Past Trauma

Stressful situations may push a teen to try drugs or alcohol. If having to study for the SAT or wanting someone at school to notice you makes a teen completely freak out, imagine what a traumatic life event does to a child who has not yet perfected the art of coping skills.   

Exposure to traumatic experiences, especially those that happened in childhood, has been linked to substance use disorders. A study on depression and anxiety found the level of substance use, particularly cocaine, strongly correlated with levels of childhood physical, sexual, and emotional abuse as well as current PTSD symptoms. Teens trying to escape from their traumatic past are likely to develop a dependence on a substance so they can “self-medicate.” If your teen has been the victim of a traumatic event, be sure to get all the support you can now, so that you don’t risk an addiction problem in the future. Trauma is not something teens have the capacity to shrug off.

4.  Being on one side of the extreme

Teens who like to experiment but have low impulse control are more likely to develop substance abuse. They get a kick out of doing anything dangerous as they try to test their limits and abilities. Teenagers who find it hard to resist impulsive behaviors are more likely to use and abuse substances. Lack of control is common in people addicted to a substance or activity. But impulsivity can lean to both sides of the extreme. 

Scientists at University of California that followed hundreds of children from preschool to adulthood, found the healthiest patterns in teens were those who were middle of the curve, and not extreme. They might have dabbled in drugs or alcohol, but they never took it too far. Instead, the study found those who were most at risk of becoming addicted to substances were the ones you would expect: the ones who had problems with depression, anxiety, and delinquent behavior. They were either the extreme abstainers or the heavy users. They were those (mostly male) who were impulsive, bold, and obsessed with new experiences or they were (mostly women) overly sad, inhibited, and/or anxious. 

If you want to curb your child’s extreme behavior, find healthy ways to keep a balance in their lives. What activity would your child want to participate in that would help them level out their extremes?

5.  Willful Disobedience

Most teens tend to overstep their parents’ rules and orders when they want something. They may start with staying on their phone late texting and watching inappropriate YouTube videos when they said they were doing homework, or maybe they just began sneaking out of the house at night. Breaking the house rules may lead to more serious rebellious behavior. A teen who gets away with things may decide their actions have no consequences. They may decide to try addictive substances or alcohol, and since they still haven’t been caught or faced discipline, they are at risk of becoming addicted.

Teenagers may feel that they are often misunderstood by their parents and may start turning to addictive substances as an escape. You want to be the one who understands. But you don’t want your teen to think you’re just a pushover who doesn’t care what they do. You do care, so show it by setting boundaries with clear consequences. According to a study on the impact of substance use disorders on families, the family context holds information about how substance use disorders develop, are maintained, and what can positively or negatively influence the treatment of the disorder. Since you hold the key, set those rules in stone as soon as possible, and follow up. You can be loving when you find out they are doing drugs or alcohol. You can give them a consequence that fits the offense, and calmly let them know you are sorry they made that choice, but it’s unacceptable in your family to abuse substances.

6.  Yearning to Belong

Some teens have trouble being alone and seek companionship from people who tend to feel the same way. Most teenagers think that drug and alcohol use is a normal part of teenage life—or even a rite of passage. Being part of a clique or wanting to fit in no matter the cost can have a strong influence on a teen’s risk of addiction. 

If you notice your teen is overly concerned about fitting in, and will go to great lengths to impress their friends with non-genuine sentiment, you may have a “people-pleaser” on your hands. One day that might be a strength, but in the teen years, it’s a red flag. Does your teen know what to do when those friends who are so important to them have some drugs or alcohol on hand? What if all of them are vaping? How is your teen going to handle it? You can role play with your teens to help them develop the language to stay strong in peer-pressure situations. There are plenty of online resources that will help you work out risky situations, like what to say when your friends say, “Be cool,” or “It will be fun.”

7.  Low Self-Esteem

Youth with insufficient confidence may be more vulnerable to abusing substances due to what they have been groomed to learn in the media and throughout history: That they will have more courage, loosen their inhibitions, and absolve their social anxiety if they get high or drunk. They have learned that a cigarette or a vape pen will help them do something with their hands while they are standing around with nothing to say. 

Is your teen painfully awkward in social situations? You can help them by facilitating some practice. What is your teen interested in? Is it music? Chess? Shopping? Gaming? There are usually plenty of games, sports, clubs, and social events outside the home. Social opportunities can also be had with a first job or a volunteering gig. Your teen needs to practice finding a place in this world, and you can help them set that up. These opportunities will build their confidence, and make them strong for when temptations arise. Be sure to educate them on the dangers of substance abuse whenever you can, and keep an eye out for social opportunities that will build up their self-esteem.

Is Your Teen Already Addicted?

We talked about ways your teen may be at risk for substance addiction: family, mental health, trauma, propensity for extremes, willful disobedience, yearning to fit in, and low self-esteem. But what if you sense your teen might have already stepped too far over the line? An article in tells us how to know if our teen is already addicted to a substance or behavior. Some of the signs to look for listed are:

  • Changes in social patterns
  • Declining academic and physical performance
  • Taking money without explanation
  • Acting evasive or combative when asked about their behavior
  • Physical evidence of intoxication or withdrawal
  • Declining personal hygiene and general health

If you just checked off some or all the items on the items on the list, don’t worry, you can get support.

Getting Help

There are several ways to help your child who is struggling with addiction. Behavioral therapies that aim to develop self-regulation and treat mental illnesses may help manage addictive personalities, especially teens.

Counseling is also recommended for troubled teens. Sessions that focus on emotional regulation, distress tolerance, and interpersonal effectiveness are helpful. Teachers or school administrators can request school counselors to offer free sessions, or you can ask around for a qualified professional psychologist or therapist who specializes in teens. 

As parents, being supportive and optimistic can be a big help to a struggling teen. Encouraging them to make better choices can motivate teens if they are struggling with these addictive behaviors. Sharing your own struggles and experiences with peer pressure, temptations, and addiction will help you connect and relate.  

If you see any of these risk factors in your teen, consult your child’s school or a medical professional right away. You don’t need to go at it alone.

Quick Takeaways:

Teens can be at risk for addiction. Parents should be on the lookout for: 

  • Family problems
  • Mental health issues
  • Past trauma
  • Being on one side of the extreme
  • Willful disobedience
  • Yearning to belong
  • Low self esteem

Author’s Bio

Stanley Clark is a community development volunteer and writer. He has worked on several commercials, events, and campaigns. Recently, he has moved to writing in the area of natural health and wellness, contributing regularly to, &