Alcohol and substance use is widespread among adolescents with recent figures finding that 71% of students have tried alcohol and 54% have reported being drunk at least once by the time they leave high school. Similarly, 36% of teens have reported drinking and 16% have reported at least one drunk episode by the end of middle school (Johnston et al., 2011).

In and of itself, these statistics may not be that alarming, but when you think about the risk factors associated with early initiation, particularly drinking prior to the age of 15, the issue becomes more pertinent. Teenagers who report early drinking episodes are twice as likely to have alcohol-related problems later in life (Fergusson et al., 1994). The question then becomes what can we do to prevent early drinking?

There are many factors that relate to the onset of substance use and future problems, including peer substance use, family history of substance use, parental attachment, parental conflict in home, early conduct problems, as well as a host of other factors too vast to discuss in one post. Conduct problems, in particular, are important to consider. Young adult alcohol problems can be predicted from a number of adolescent antisocial behaviors, such as fighting and getting into trouble with law (Clapper et al., 1995). 

One theory proposed could be that adolescents are simply bored. Reseach is still developing, but I can tell you what I’ve heard many times in my clinical work, “There just isn’t anything better to do.” One way researchers have tested this is by asking teens about their engagement in a variety of activities, such as sports, school clubs, shopping, organizations, dating, and dozens of other options, and whether they derive pleasure from these activities. Adult literature suggests that those with increased depression tend to engage in a decreased number of pleasurable activities, which is associated with increased smoking (Audrain-McGovern et al., 2011). 

This research does not necessarily suggest a direct cause-effect link where more boredom leads to increased smoking. Instead, it suggests that those who are depressed tend to withdraw from pleasant activities and do not engage in reinforcing environments. This withdrawal and lack of engagement in pleasurable activities is associated with greater levels of smoking.

There is still more work to be done to prevent substance use problems and initiation in early adolescence. We need to create healthy alternative behaviors that can be reinforcing for teens to engage in. Not everyone will enjoy the same things, but perhaps schools can provide more options both on campus and around the community that may help mitigate later substance use problems. These options may vary by class and across different cohorts, but making prevention a focus may help prevent the economic impact substance use problems has on society. Those with substance use problems and another disorder, such as Major Depressive Disorder or Conduct Disorder, incur higher treatment costs and report more behavioral problems (King et al., 2000).article continues after advertisement

It is undeniable the impact early substance use can have on an adolescent and we have to be mindful of the confluence of factors associated with early substance use. Yes, it’s partially genetic predisposition, but it’s also environmental circumstances, such as the ones described above. We cannot fix the genetics for which children came into this world, but we can create different conditions for them once they are out.

What conditions do we want to create?  What are the environments we’ve made available for adolescents?  How can we foster enjoyment and pleasure in activities? Let us model the type of person we want our teenagers to be. When we find pleasure and solitude in our glass of wine every night and lack joy everywhere else, what does this tell the children? Now there is absolutely nothing wrong with having a glass of wine at night, but if that is your only source of joy, then what do you think your child sees and learns? 

Leave a comment below on how you and those around you can begin to create different conditions for teens to grow up in. What’s worked for you and your family?