How Drug and Alcohol Use Affects Children and Teens

How Drug and Alcohol Use Affects Children and Teens

After a steady drop in the early 2000s, drug and alcohol abuse has yet again begun increasing among children and teenagers. Alcohol is the most popular drug among teens, with 78% admitting to drinking at least once, and nearly half drinking 12 or more drinks per year. Almost a quarter of teens have tried marijuana, and 10% have tried other illicit drugs or abused a prescription medication. Drug and alcohol use isn’t just an adolescent rite of passage, though. Children’s developing brains and bodies are highly vulnerable to the dangers of drugs and alcohol.


Increased Risk of Addiction

Early use of drugs and alcohol remains one of the most significant risk factors for subsequent drug and alcohol abuse. Children need lower doses of drugs and alcohol to become addicted, and frequently develop chemical dependencies much more quickly than adults.


Alcohol often serves as a gateway drug to harder drugs. Kids who drink alcohol before the age of 15 are five times more likely to abuse alcohol. Teen drinking increases a child’s likelihood of using illicit drugs by 50 times.


Stunted Cognitive Development

Early exposure to drugs and alcohol wreaks havoc on children’s brains. Drugs and alcohol can kill brain cells, increase kids’ vulnerability to learning disorders and mental illnesses, and even slow brain development. Teens who drink are vulnerable to memory, attention, and learning difficulties, and may struggle academically. One study, for example, found that even when all other factors were equal, teens who drank recalled 10% less information than teens who didn’t.


Illicit drugs undermine brain development in myriad ways, but many parents mistakenly believe marijuana is less dangerous. Nothing could be further from the truth. Research has found that even short-term marijuana use harms working memory, academic performance, spatial reasoning, and visual scanning skills.


When teens’ cognitive development is stunted, it can create a vicious cycle. Poor performance in school contributes to low self-esteem, which can give rise to further drug abuse. This, of course, continually undermines academic performance, leading to increasing difficulties among kids who use drugs and alcohol.


Poor Physical Health

Drug and alcohol use exposes children to dozens of potential health risks. The risks are partially dependent on the drug or drugs children use. Stimulant users, for example, are more vulnerable to high blood pressure, while alcohol addicts can suffer liver problems. Some common physical side effects of drug and alcohol use include:

  • Transmission of illnesses such as HIV/AIDS
  • Cardiovascular and circulatory problems
  • Sudden death
  • Overdose
  • Coma
  • Changes in sleep habits
  • Changes in appetite or body weight
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Skin problems
  • Infections
  • Organ damage
  • Cancer
  • Gastrointestinal problems such as frequent vomiting
  • Unexplained aches and pains


Some drugs, particularly stimulant medications, have also been shown to stunt teens’ growth.



Drug and alcohol use are significant predictors of delinquency among teens and young adults. Substance abuse almost by definition requires teens to break the law by purchasing substances from drug dealers, stealing a parent’s medication, or doctor-shopping. Research additionally suggests that teen drug users are more likely to carry guns, behave violently, join gangs, and engage in other high-risk behaviors. This renders teens vulnerable to arrest, which can create a cascade of negative consequences, including incarceration, difficulty finding employment, and ineligibility for federal student loan programs.



Half of all rapes occur while under the influence of drugs and alcohol, and teens who get into physical fights are more likely to use drugs and alcohol than teens who don’t fight. Substance abuse undermines teens’ judgment, causing them to make unsafe decisions that can render them vulnerable to violence. Drugs such as alcohol can cause teens to behave violently, while illegal street drugs subject children to the risk of violence at the hands of drug dealers and addicts.


Social Challenges

Drugs and alcohol stunt the social and emotional development of teens. While this can make adolescent life challenging in its own right, social problems in adolescence can carry over into adulthood. Kids who don’t develop strong conflict resolution skills, who engage in unhealthy or abusive relationships, or who have difficulty making friends are more likely to continue to repeat these patterns in adulthood. Drug and alcohol use do more than just make it difficult for children to make friends. They can also cause more serious challenges, including:

  • Increasing the likelihood that your child engages in bullying or becomes a victim of bullies.
  • Rendering your child more vulnerable to abusive relationships.
  • Inhibiting the development of empathy.
  • Increasing aggressive behavior


When teens use drugs and alcohol, their social development may freeze. This means that, even after they get sober, they’ll be socially at the same age they were when they began using drugs. This challenge can take years of practice and training to overcome.


Academic Difficulties

Given that drugs and alcohol can stunt brain development, lead to aggressive behavior, and undermine physical and mental health, it should come as no surprise that drugs and alcohol lead to academic difficulties. Even so-called performance-enhancing drugs can prove problematic. Many teens rely on stimulant drugs such as Adderall to study longer and perform better in school. But one recent study found that these drugs don’t actually enhance performance at all; they just make their users think they’re working harder and more effectively.


Other drugs distract children from school or make learning difficult or impossible. The academic side effects of drug use include:

  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Inability to retain recently-learned information.
  • Missing school.
  • Acting out in class.
  • Learning disorders.
  • Trouble getting along with peers and teachers.
  • Dropping out of high school.

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