Understanding Substance Use

Understanding Teen Substance Use

Table of Contents


Substance use is when you take or ingest any substance, such as alcohol or drugs. Substance abuse is when you take or ingest more than what is recommended of a substance. Adolescents should avoid all substances because their brain isn’t fully developed and drinking or using substances before then can have irreversible consequences.

What is Substance Use?

Substance use is when you take or ingest any substance, such as alcohol or drugs. 

Substance abuse is when you take or ingest more than what is recommended of a substance. 

For example, for adults over the age of 21 who choose to drink, there are recommended drinking guidelines. For women, drinking more than 2 drinks in an evening or more than 7 in a week is considered excessive use (a form of substance abuse). For men, drinking more than 3 drinks in an evening or more than 13 in a week is considered excessive use (a form of substance abuse). 

Recommended guidelines are important as drinking more than what is recommended can lead to physical and mental health problems like addiction, depression, anxiety, diabetes, heart problems, and more.

For adolescents, the recommendation is to avoid all substances, legal or illegal. Your brain isn’t fully developed until the age of 25 and drinking or using substances before then can have consequences that can’t be reversed. 

Additionally, you might try a substance without understanding what it is and how it can impact you. This can lead to risky and dangerous behavior and other harmful consequences. 

Types of Substances


Underage drinking happens, and it can be dangerous. What starts out as fun or a way to cope can lead to a problem with addiction. When someone drinks more than what is recommended it’s called binge drinking. Binge drinking is when you consume more than 3-4 drinks (if you are a female)/ 3-5 drinks (if you are a male) within a few hours. Drinking, and especially binge drinking, can lead to impaired judgment, increased risk of being physically or sexually assaulted, slower brain development, accidental death, homicide, suicide and developing an addiction.

Tobacco: Cigarettes/ Cigars/ Smokeless Tobacco

“Don’t smoke!” This is a common phrase you hear when people talk to you about smoking. Maybe you’ve thought about smoking or maybe you currently smoke. Maybe a family member or friend smokes and you feel like it’s not a big deal. Smoking has consequences for your brain, overall health, and other parts of your life. It can make it harder to breathe, perform in sports, and potentially cause long term health problems. In addition, there is smokeless tobacco like chewing tobacco or snuff. Smokeless tobacco can be equally as harmful as smoking tobacco. Any form of tobacco is highly addictive. 

Vaping/ E-Pens

Vaping might seem cool, but it is addictive and can cause long-term harm to your brain development. If you choose to vape, make the best decisions for your health. Vaping is not a safer alternative to smoking. The vapor from the liquid in an E-pen can contain nicotine, flavoring, marijuan, hash oil, toxins (including toxins that may cause cancer) or other substances. The long-term financial cost and the health risks that come with developing an addiction to vaping may not be worth it. If you need someone to talk to about vaping, reach out to a counselor or a trusted adult.


Drugs can alter the way you think, feel, and act. Taking drugs that aren’t prescribed to you or the way they are prescribed to you can cause you to engage in risky behavior, take unnecessary risks, and can damage you physically, mentally, and hurt the relationships you have in your life.

Common Drugs

  • CaffeineDrinking Red Bull, Monster, and other energy drinks to help you stay awake and alert isn’t a problem every once in a while. But, if you find yourself always needing an energy drink, soda, or food (like chocolate) to get through the day or you have bad headaches and feel moody when you don’t have it, you may be developing an addiction to caffeine. Caffeine addiction is serious, and it can cause you a lot of unhealthy side effects.
  • Marijuana/“Weed” – Your brain isn’t fully developed until age 25.  Using weed can have negative physical and mental health consequences. Unless prescribed by a doctor, you don’t know where your marijuana is coming from. You take a chance that the marijuana you smoke or ingest is laced with another substance that could be deadly.
  • Opioids– There are many names for opioids such as pills, oxy, hydrocodone, heroin, codeine, morphine. No matter the name, opioids are dangerous unless prescribed by a doctor and taken as the doctor prescribed them. Sometimes we take these types of drugs to help deal with the pain we are feeling. Although they may relieve your pain for a short period of time, it can cause you to develop an addiction. Opioids are highly addictive.  Even when they are prescribed by a doctor, you should monitor how you use them. It’s important to remember that the pain you feel is temporary, but the mental and physical pain that comes with developing an opioid addiction is long-lasting. For some of us, one experience with an opioid can result in a lifelong battle with this drug. Once addicted to opioids, you may lose control of who you are and your actions.
  • Hallucinogens – Also known as K2, MDMA, molly, ecstasy, LSD, shrooms are drugs that alter your current reality and mental state. Sometimes people take hallucinogens because they feel like they make concerts or parties more interesting and fun. Unfortunately, when you’re intoxicated (high) you don’t have control over your actions, and oftentimes make bad decisions that may feel good in the moment, but will harm you in the long run.
  • Inhalants – Sniffing and huffing gasoline, types of pens, glue, or types of cleaning products can have dangerous consequences. While some people enjoy the feeling, huffing can be deadly. Your heart could stop after one huff and it’s a common occurrence known as “sudden sniffing death.”
  • Sedatives – Also known as Benzos, Xanax, Xan bars are medications used to help manage anxiety. When they aren’t taken as prescribed they can become addictive and have dangerous consequences. Sedatives taken with alcohol can be deadly and should be avoided. 
  • Stimulants – Also known as cocaine or meth can change your brain and your ability to function. Stimulants are taken to stay alert and awake but can hurt you and your ability to make good decisions.

Why Do I Feel This Way?

Sometimes you take a substance because you are curious. We call this experimental use and it is still dangerous. Throughout your time in middle and high school, you will be presented with the opportunity to drink or use another substance. Wanting to fit in is normal, but taking a substance you aren’t comfortable with can create more problems than it’s worth.

Signs and Symptoms

  • Neglecting personal/family responsibilities
  • Declining academic or professional performance
  • Conflicts with loved ones or friends
  • Preoccupation with or inability to control using a substance
  • Needing increasing amounts of the substance to feel its effects
  • Getting drunk or high when it could be hazardous, such as before driving
  • Going through withdrawal when not using a substance
  • Changes in mood, including depression, anger, and irritability
  • Less interest in activities and/or care in appearance
  • Problems concentrating or with memory

Wellbeing Strategies

Avoid addictive behaviors: Although your genetics, family history, and brain chemistry can increase the likelihood of developing an addiction, avoiding addictive behaviors is a sure way to not develop an addiction.  

Avoid triggers: Once you have an addiction, but are working to address it, it is important to avoid triggers. Triggers include people, places, and things that could influence you to engage in the addictive behavior again. If you find it difficult to avoid your addictive behavior, you can work with a counselor to develop the skills to avoid triggers and to develop healthy coping skills. 

Talk To A Therapist or Counselor: It can be difficult to address your emotions and thoughts, experiences, and life challenges. Reaching out to a therapist or counselor can help you feel better and less alone. Find a therapist near you here or try online therapy!

Talk to a trusted adult: Parents, mentors, school employees, and religious leaders can provide you with additional support and guidance to work through your life challenges.

Set Boundaries: You can create space from certain friends or family members that put you down. Instead of focusing on the negative things you may identify or hear from others, create daily messages to yourself that are positive and help you move away from negative self-talk.

Take care of yourself: Exercise, sleep, and eating healthy can have a big impact on your overall mood and how you feel about yourself. You can also do something you enjoy, such as yoga, art, sports, writing, listening to music, playing an instrument, etc.  Finding time to do things that you enjoy can help you feel better.

Meditate, prayer, mindfulness: Connecting to your breathing and your abilities to calm yourself can help positively increase your mood. Spending time in nature can help improve your mood

Extend Your Mental Health Support Coverage

Oasis Helps K-12 And Higher Education Institutions Support Student, Faculty, And Staff Wellbeing With Access To Mental Health Professionals And Evidence-Based Content

Scroll to Top