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Ask The Expert: Why Do Teenagers Use Drugs?

Dear Your Teen:

We are struggling with our daughter’s drug use and have had a hard time finding reasons for her behavior. We are wondering whether there is some undisclosed trauma or abuse.

We thought you may also want:

What are the most common reasons for teen drug use and are there statistics about them? Also, what are the general success rates of addiction programs and what factors contribute to success?

EXPERT | Dr. Joseph Lee

I wish there was a linear narrative that explained why teenagers use drugs (like trauma) but there isn’t. There are multiple reasons for kids getting into substance abuse. Some just want to experiment and conform. Others want to heighten social experiences.

The truth is that many young people will use some addictive substance at some point. However, they all have different risk factors that predispose them to developing a serous drug addiction, in much the same way that we all have different risk factors for heart disease, diabetes, and some forms of cancer. Over time, some kids who use drugs start to self select for other kids who are like them. When this becomes their new normal, then they assume that “everyone” is using as much as they are.

So many teens experiment and some will become addicted.

The problem is that even the kids who are at risk think of themselves as “normal” kids who can use every once in awhile.

Not that recreational use is great either. Many young people die every year without being addicted, simply by experimenting with drugs and alcohol.

Neurologically, all teenagers are risk taking and thrill seeking to some degree, but there is a subpopulation that can be even more impulsive and disinhibited with regard to consequences. In these situations, there doesn’t have to be a trauma or family dysfunction to explain their drug use, their brains are simply wired differently.

All parents should talk to a physician or addiction specialist to get a ball park sense of their family’s genetic and other risk factors for addiction. You can go to if you are interested in more data about the prevalence of teen drug use.

Looking for more? Maybe this article can help:

Treating young people with addiction can be challenging since we all feel fairly invincible at that age. Sobriety is the ultimate goal but there are so many other reasons to seek treatment (suicide, hepatitis C, date rape, violence, legal problems, etc). Kids do not have to “hit rock bottom” to get better. Intervene as early as you can, especially if your child has started to experiment at a young age.

Dr. Joseph Lee, author of Recovering My Kid, serves as the Medical Director of Hazelden Youth Services. He can be reached at

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