Teenagers and addiction

Teenage girl holding cigarette from backMany teenagers are vulnerable to some form of addiction. Although addiction to drugs is most commonly reported, there are also activities that are addictive - including gaming, gambling, pornography, exercise, the Internet and other technology.

Helping a teenager deal with an addiction can be a very daunting prospect, so we've teamed up with teen mental health charity stem4 to give you the low-down.


What is an addiction?

Addiction has a clear craving component and is compulsive. The indivual will gain increasing tolerance to what the original effect was, and feel out of control and unable to stop even with effort. Withdrawal is noted if the behaviour is discontinued for even a short period of time.


Why do young people push limits?

  • Curiosity: They want to know what it feels like to get high or be drunk.
  • Peer pressure: Their friends are doing it.
  • Acceptance: Their parents, siblings or role models are doing it.
  • Defiance: They want to rebel against societal rules.
  • Risk-taking behaviors: A call for help or to experience excitement.
  • Thrill-seeking activities: They want to experience something new.
  • Boredom: They want to do something exciting.
  • Independence: They want to make their own decisions.
  • Pleasure: They want to feel good.
  • Self-Esteem: They want to show they can be 'better than...'
  • Escape: They want to experience different feelings or emotions than they currently do.
  • To cope: To help overcome a difficulty such as social anxiety.

Has your teenager begun to act differently?

There are various factors that contribute to addiction including genetics, brain chemistry, life experiences, individual characteristics, social setting and upbringing.

Parents and family can be among the first to spot early signs of addiction.

Signs of substance addiction include:

  • Physical - bloodshot eyes, change in pupil-size, changes in eating and sleep patterns, deterioration in presentation, unusual smells on breath/body/clothing, tremors, slurred speech, poor coordination
  • Behaviours - decreased attendance and performance at school, unexplained money problems or requirements, secrecy or suspect behaviours, new friends and favourite places, frequently getting into trouble, missing prescriptions/alcohol/solvents
  • Moods - changes in personality, sudden mood and energy swings, appearing spaced out/fearful/anxious/paranoid for no reason
  • Situational - unusual pipes/cigarette papers/small weighing scales/butane lighters/eye drops, empty bottles of alcohol

Signs of technology/Internet/gaming addiction include:

  • Hours spent on the computer or playing games
  • Not eating or sleeping properly in order to remain online
  • Lying about computer or video game use
  • Choosing to use the computer or play video games rather than seeing friends
  • Being irritable, aggressive, agitated or panicked when away from technology
  • Speech, actions and thoughts influenced by the content of the games


How you can help

1. Talking to your teenager

  • Don't leave an addiction untreated – it can lead to physical complications and can affect the academic, social and emotional development of your teen in a significant way.
  • Listen first. Suspend your judgements.
  • Decide on when and how to bring up your worries. Don't choose to have a serious discussion when they are drunk or high. Lectures don't work.
  • Be prepared for your teenager to initially deny the problem.
  • Respect their point of view. Validate how they feel rather than dismiss. Find out what they know and read up on background facts.
  • Focus on your observations and concerns - statements are better than questions.
  • Be tentative. Don't start with sensitive subjects.
  • Keep communicating with your teenager. Remember a feature of an addiction is denial.
  • Don't be angry or blame your teenager. Focus on anything that might motivate them to change.
  • Explore underlying issues - find out what they think their addiction helps them deal with. Engage them in wanting to explore alternative ways of dealing with these. If they are prepared to accept help, include them in decisions.

2. Lay down ground rules and consequences

Make sure your teenager understands the consequences of the addiction and the steps that he/she has to take. Explain rules and do not make empty threats. Boundaries and consistency are crucial.

3. Monitor your child's activity

Know where your teen goes and who he/she hangs out with. Carry out random checks for potential drug hiding places. Explain to your teen that this lack of privacy is to help them address their addiction.

4. Get professional help

Arrange for things to be easy, for example instead of expecting them to do something of their own accord, break it down into small steps and do it with them, or if they don't want to go out, arrange for things to happen more at home.

You should also arrange for a medical evaluation – its important to assess risk, and early intervention usually means a good outcome. Try your GP for referral to specialist addiction services.

5. Be a role model - you won't be effective asking your teenager to place limits on their behaviour if you don't.



Last updated: over 3 years ago