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Who Is at Risk?

For two decades, researchers have been struggling to identify the risk factors that can lead to drug and alcohol dependency, particularly among adolescents.


How Can We Protect Our Children?

Some of these are now widely recognized. Environmental factors such as family substance abuse, domestic violence, child abuse, excessively harsh discipline, lack of affection, parental neglect, and living in an environment where drug and alcohol abuse is common are all risk factors.

According to the federal government's Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (a division of the Department of Health & Human Services), adolescents with psycho-social problems such as depression or violent behaviors are also more likely to use cigarettes or engage in "binge" drinking and much more likely to use marijuana than those with little or no indication of such problems. Although early warning signs are often chalked up to growing pains, the SAMHSA report says these red flags could provide an early indication of psychiatric problems, which often lead to substance abuse or more severe conditions. Adolescents who had high problem scores during the past six months were more likely to have used cigarettes or engaged in binge drinking (five or more drinks on the same occasion) in the past month and much more likely to have used marijuana during that time, compared to those with lower problem scores. "Puberty is a major risk point for many psychiatric disorders," says Marc Schuckit, M.D., a psychiatrist and addictions specialist who teaches at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine and who has conducted studies about the genetic and environmental links to alcoholism. It is not surprising, he adds, that it also a high-risk time for drug use.

Girl in medicine chest
Boy smoking

Risk Factors

Factors that can contribute to substance abuse among adolescents (source: NIDA):

  • Chaotic home environment in which parents abuse substances or suffer from mental illness
  • Disadvantaged environment
  • Poor academic performance
  • Aggressive and impulsive personality traits
  • Deviant peer influence
  • Availability of alcohol and other drugs
  • Belief that substance use is the norm
  • Ineffective parenting
  • Lack of mutual attachments

Protective Factors

Factors that can help avert addiction:

  • Strong family bonds
  • Involvement of parents in the lives of their children
  • School success
  • Adoption of attitudes that are critical of drug use

-- Janet Firshein

Bottom photo: © Barbara Peacock/FPG International

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