Risk and Protective Factors for Teenage Substance Abuse

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For young children already exhibiting serious risk factors, delaying intervention until adolescence will likely make it more difficult to overcome risks. By adolescence, children’s attitudes and behaviors are well-established and not easily changed.”

~ The National Institute on Drug Abuse, Preventing Drug Use among Children and Adolescents: A Research-Based Guide for Parents, Educators, and Community Leaders

When considering which teenagers are at the most risk of developing an addictive disorder, you must keep two things in mind:

  • risk factors – those things that may contribute to the development or worsening of problematic substance abuse
  • protective factors – those things that may lessen the danger or aid in recovery

What are Some of the Biggest Risk Factors That Contribute to Teenage Substance Abuse?

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism lists several risk factors that may play a role:

  • Genetics – Children with biological parents who abuse drugs or alcohol tend to initiate substance use earlier in life and have higher rates of abuse. Genetics is the greatest contributing factor of addictive disorders, accounting for HALF of the risk.
  • Childhood Behavioral Problems – Also referred to as “psychological deregulation” – Problematic behavioral disorders that first present during preadolescence. These conditions are predictors of future adolescent substance abuse
  • Home Environment – Children learn to model their behaviors and coping mechanisms after what they are exposed to, including dysfunctional behaviors such as substance abuse.
  • Parental alcohol/drug use – Children form expectations about the role that drugs or alcohol play by observing their parents.
  • Peer pressure – Like parents, a child’s peers influence their behaviors. Research has shown that early childhood exposure to substance abuse among one's peers can hasten the initiation of use.
  • Trauma – Childhood exposure to traumatic experiences such as sexual, physical, or emotional maltreatment is a strong predictor of future substance use. Compared to children who did not suffer traumatic experiences, abused children are seven times more likely to initiate alcohol use by age 12, and that initiation happens an average of 2 years earlier.

Which Protective Factors Help Reduce the Likelihood of Teenage Substance Abuse

Healthy and proactive parental interaction is the biggest and most important protective factor for children of all ages – from preschool to high school. Best of all, the sooner that interaction happens, the greater positive impact it will have.

Other factors that can mitigate the risk of teenage substance abuse include:

  • Parents who do not use drugs or abuse alcohol – If you are struggling with an addictive disorder, seek professional treatment for yourself. It is the best thing you can do for the futures of both yourself and your children.
  • Stability at home – Your home should be your child’s safe place.
  • Responsible parenting – That meets ALL of your child’s needs – financial, security, cognitive, emotional, and social.
  • Clearly-defined and consistent discipline – Your child needs to know the boundaries of acceptable behavior.
  • Parental monitoring of your child’s social life – You should always know where your child is, what they are doing, and who they are associated with.
  • Engagement in positive activities – Your child should have positive, healthy outlets for their energy and interests – hobbies, sports, volunteering, extracurricular activities, etc.
  • Involvement with positive societal institutions – In order to foster a sense of community, your child should be active in some larger group – school, church, or community organizations.
  • Open discussions about drugs and alcohol – Be willing to talk to your child about the dangers of substance use. Even if you have a personal history of use, your child can learn from your mistakes.

What Should I Do If My Teenager Is Using Drugs or Alcohol?


Your actions and reactions can determine if your child successfully recovers from their disease of addiction. Here are some do’s and don’ts:

  • DON’T ignore the problem. It will not go away or get better on its own.
  • DON’T take them at their word – promises, begging, or even threats. That is the disease talking.
  • DON’T attempt to handle this by yourself – the disease of addiction is bigger than any individual.
  • DO get help from professionals who specialize in teenage addiction recovery.
  • DO educate yourself about the disease of addiction.
  • DO stay positive and patient.

When your teenager is abusing drugs or alcohol, time is of the essence. With early intervention and proper treatment, the progress of the disease can be halted and your child can return to a productive and healthy life. Contact Teensavers Treatment Center today to discuss which treatment options are best for your teenager.

by Albert Fontenot