Teens and Substance Abuse: A Comprehensive Guide for Parents

During the teenage years, adolescents are biologically driven to explore their identities and to try new things. The brain is still developing the judgment and self-inhibition systems. This can result in adolescents easily going along with their peers, acting impulsively, and seeking out new and exciting sensations. For many teens, these impulses cause them to begin abusing drugs and alcohol.

Even if a teen has not already tried drugs or alcohol, it is likely they have at least had the opportunity to - or that their peers are currently using. Below, we will discuss the data surrounding which substances teens are using most frequently as well as how teens get access to these substances.

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    Teens and Substance Abuse: The Basics

    Teen substance use is increasing. If a teen has not already tried drugs or alcohol, it is likely they have had the opportunity to or that their peers are currently using. The sections below discuss the data surrounding what substances teens are using most frequently in addition to how teens get access to substances.

    Common Substances Abused By Teens

    The latest data from The National Institute of Drug Abuse found that alcohol is the most common substance abused by teens, followed by marijuana and tobacco. Their research has found that in the past month, 39% of high school seniors reported drinking alcohol; 23% reported smoking marijuana; and 16% reported smoking cigarettes.

    Drugs And Alcohol In Schools

    Unfortunately, substance abuse among teens is not limited to taking place after school and on the weekends. CASA found that 86% of high school students said their classmates either drink, use drugs, or smoke during the school day (National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse XVII: Teens). Additionally, 44% of high school students knew a student who sold drugs at their school. These students, when asked which drugs were sold on school grounds, identified the following:

    • 91% marijuana
    • 24% prescription drugs
    • 9% cocaine
    • 7% ecstasy

    Fifty-two percent of high school students identified a commonplace on or near school grounds where students go to use drugs, drink, or smoke during the school day. Thirty-six percent of the surveyed students felt it was easy to use drugs, drink, or smoke during the school day without getting caught.

    These findings demonstrate the common and widespread issue of drug and alcohol abuse for teens in America. Today, teens face opportunities and pressure at school to experiment with harmful substances. Because of the abundance of opportunities for adolescents to try drugs and alcohol, it is important for parents to be aware of warning signs and know the “why” behind teenage substance use.

    Warning Signs of Teenage Drug Abuse

    According to The National Institute on Drug Abuse, many adolescents have already tried drugs by the time they turn 13. Another study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) reports that 26 percent of students between the ages of 12-17 years state that drugs are used, stored, or sold on school grounds. CASA also reports more than 90% of people with a substance problem began smoking, drinking or using other drugs before age 18.

    Many teens who are using drugs or alcohol seek to hide their involvements from their parents, often making it difficult for parents to recognize that there is even an issue. If you notice your son or daughter acting differently for no known reason, he or she could be developing a substance use problem. Other warning signs of teen substance use include:

    • Frequently tired
    • A change in friends
    • Careless attitude
    • Mood changes
    • Skipping school
    • Clenches teeth
    • Red or flushed face
    • Burns on fingers
    • Locks bedroom door
    • Complaints from teachers
    • Takes secretive phone calls
    • Goes out frequently and misses curfew
    • Poor academic performance
    • Changes in sleeping habits
    • Changes in eating habits
    • Avoids eye contact
    • The smell of smoke on breath or clothes
    • Withdrawn from family and friends
    • Decreased interest in hobbies, sports, and school activities
    • Bad grooming habits and messy appearance

    If your teen displays one or more of these behaviors, seek to understand your teen’s habits and whereabouts. It’s important for parents to take these warning signs seriously and take immediate action.

    Common Causes of Teenage Substance Abuse

    Watching your son or daughter struggle with substance abuse can cause strains on relationships and concerns for parents. For parents who have just discovered a substance use issue in their teen, the next step is to determine the underlying cause for the substance use. The causes of teen substance use range from a variety of biological, environmental, mental, and emotional issues, as outlined below.

    Biological Causes Contributing to Teen Substance Abuse

    One of the main biological causes of teen substance abuse is due to the teenage brain still developing. The prefrontal cortex of the brain, responsible for decision-making and controlling impulses and emotions, isn’t fully developed until a person hits their mid-20’s. This results in many teens feeling a biological urge to try something new and exciting. Unfortunately, drugs or alcohol are often chosen. These teens will often start using because they want to experiment and feel a strong desire to experience something thrilling.

    Environmental Causes Contributing to Teen Substance Abuse

    Other teens may begin using as a result of their home, school, and social environments. Many teens may experiment with substances due to peer pressure and because they desire to fit in socially. If your teen’s friends are using or experimenting with substances, your teen is more likely to do so as well. If there is drug and/or alcohol use in a teen’s home, it can prompt them to begin using themselves. Likewise, if a teen lives in a neighborhood or attends a school where harmful substances are easy to access, they are more prone to begin using.

    Emotional Causes Contributing to Teen Substance Abuse

    Another common factor that contributes to substance abuse in teens is unresolved emotional issues or trauma. These teens just want to feel better, so they turn to drugs. Teens often experience high levels of stress and use harmful substances to suppress issues they feel emotionally unequipped to handle. These difficulties may include adverse experiences earlier in life, a history of physical abuse or emotional abuse, or stressors that are present in their current life situation.

    Mental Causes Contributing to Teen Substance Abuse

    Substance abuse in teens often intersects with mental health issues. According to The National Institute on Drug Abuse, a teen with a substance use issue is more likely to also have a mood, anxiety, learning, or behavioral disorder. Repeated substance use can cause or contribute to disorders such as anxiety, depression, or ADHD.

    No matter the cause of teen substance abuse, the dangers surrounding teen drug and alcohol use presents serious consequences. It’s important to know the warning signs of teenage drug abuse in order to prevent your teen from participating in harmful activities.

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    The Dangers of Teen Substance Abuse

    Many parents of a teen engaging in substance use have observed the harmful effects that drugs and alcohol have on the family, the teen’s academic performance, their social interactions, and their behavior. The use of drugs and alcohol can lead teens to make poor decisions that have lasting effects on their life. Drugs and alcohol are increasingly harmful when a teen develops a pattern of repeated use. Some of the dangers of teen substance abuse include:

    • Addiction
    • Failure in school
    • Decreased motivation
    • Impaired memory
    • Unhealthy relationships
    • Mental health problems
    • Substance abuse disorders
    • Infectious diseases (HIV, Hepatitis C)
    • Unsafe sex
    • Overdose
    • Death

    Even if a teen is experimenting with drugs or alcohol and is not yet addicted to a substance, serious consequences can still follow. As parents take the necessary steps, they can help guide their son or daughter back to health and safety. In addition, clinically proven and researched-backed treatment options, such as wilderness therapy, can effectively guide struggling teens back to health, happiness, and sobriety.

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    How Parents Can Help Their Teen Struggling with Substance Abuse

    The emotional drain that comes with having a teen struggling with substance abuse can result in parents feeling incapable and overwhelmed with how to help their son or daughter. However, it’s important to remember that parents play an important role in empowering their teen with the tools they need to create their own happy and healthy lives. Three of the most effective ways parents can provide support to their teen dealing with substance abuse is:

    • Direct communication
    • Address the issue
    • Supervise and set limits

    Direct Communication

    If you’re concerned that your son or daughter may be using drugs, ask your teen directly, “Are you using drugs?” Or, “Have you tried alcohol?” Asking your son or daughter such direct questions may prompt them to share their experiences and will open the lines of communication between you and your teen surrounding these topics. Encouraging honest and direct communication lets your teen know you are open to discussing these topics with them. Some teens may not be honest in their responses, but it’s important for parents to take the first step by demonstrating direct communication.

    Parents, prepare yourself for these conversations by identifying responses that will be both helpful and reassuring to your teen that you are on their team, even if their responses are not what you were hoping to hear. During these conversations, express your love and concern for your teen and that you want the best for them.

    Reinforce good behavior in your teen through positive encouragement. Be there to support your teen as he or she gets the treatment they need. Encourage your teen to build new friendships and to try new things. Let your teen know that you know they can do hard things and that you are there to support them on the road of recovery.

    Supervise and Set Limits

    While parents should encourage open communication and not shame their son or daughter, it’s also important to establish healthy boundaries and limits for your teen. Parents should sit down with their teen to discuss what kinds of behavior is appropriate and inappropriate. While teens will make their own decisions, it’s important for your son or daughter to know where you stand and what the rules of the family are by following through with consequences in a predictable and consistent manner. This teaches responsibility and encourages communication. Parents should also make an effort to know and meet their teen’s friends and their parents to stay informed and involved in a healthy way.

    Address the Issue

    Lastly, teens must address their teen’s substance abuse issues. As soon as a parent recognizes there is a problem, it’s time to seek professional help. It’s important teens get a professional assessment as your teen’s substance issues could also be related to mental health issues. When it comes to such a serious issue that could have lasting effects on the brain, parents must act promptly and with caution. The best way parents can ensure a healthy future for their teen is to address the issue and seek professional help.

    The teenage years provide adolescents with many opportunities to experiment with drugs and alcohol. Watching your son or daughter struggle with substance abuse can cause strains on relationships and concerns for parents. Clinically proven and researched-backed treatment options, such as wilderness adventure therapy, can effectively guide struggling teens back to health, happiness, and sobriety. If you are a parent of a teen struggling with substance abuse, it’s important to remember there is a way out. Your teen can be happy and healthy once again, but you must take the first step by seeking proper treatment for them. One highly effective treatment option for teens struggling with substance abuse is wilderness therapy because it combines traditional therapy with adventure activities that lead to confidence, improved health, and a greater sense of self. With the proper help, your teen’s future can be bright once again.

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    Wilderness Therapy: A Remedy for Substance Abuse Among Adolescents

    As soon as a parent recognizes their son or daughter is struggling with substance abuse, it’s time to seek professional help. When it comes to such a serious issue that could have lasting effects on the brain, parents must act promptly and with caution. The best way for parents to ensure a healthy future for their teen is to address the issue and seek professional help.

    A common treatment option parents turn to for their teen struggling with substance abuse is wilderness therapy. In recent years, wilderness therapy programs have become more prevalent as treatment for teens and substance abuse due to their ability to aid individuals in overcoming the social, behavioral, and emotional problems that follow.

    What is Wilderness Therapy?

    Wilderness adventure therapy — hiking, rock climbing, mountain biking, skiing, backpacking, and canyoneering, etc. — is a revolutionary, dynamic way to break through boundaries, build awareness, and establish healthier behavioral patterns for those with cognitive, as well as behavioral challenges. Wilderness therapy meets a teen’s unique needs and removes them from the negative influences present in their everyday life. This step acts as a “reset button” for teens which facilitates growth and change in a safe and monitored environment.

    A credible wilderness therapy program will accomplish the following in teens struggling with substance abuse:

    • Behavioral Intervention
    • Accountability
    • Healthier Lifestyle
    • Individualized Treatment
    • Clinically-Proven Results

    Behavioral Intervention

    Wilderness therapy removes teens with substance abuse issues from the environment they are currently struggling in. Teens in a wilderness therapy program don’t have access to drugs, alcohol, or negative influences encouraging their use. This acts as a behavioral intervention and gives the teen distance from the current influences and stressors of their life so they might increase their understanding around their substance use and develop a commitment to sobriety. The previously harmful and destructive environment is replaced by the peaceful and therapeutic environment of the wilderness. A credible wilderness therapy program will provide a variety of environments for students to generalize the skills and coping mechanisms they’ve learned to replace previous patterns of substance abuse.

    Wilderness Therapy Teaches Accountability to Teens with Substance Abuse Issues

    A credible wilderness therapy program teaches about the natural consequences that come from the wilderness. For example, if a student does not set up their shelter properly or prep their meals, they will suffer the consequence. As teens generalize this skill, it helps them take full accountability for the poor choices that have led them to this point. Once a teen struggling with substance abuse takes responsibility for their actions, the result is personal empowerment, greater awareness, and improved behavior.

    Wilderness Therapy Promotes a Healthier Lifestyle in Teens

    Wilderness therapy can also help a teen improve their overall health. Wilderness therapy as treatment for teen substance abuse combines a variety of high-impact, challenging physical activities that push teens to accomplish goals they never thought impossible. Teens routinely go outside their comfort zone, which can be a dynamic and exciting treatment process for teens struggling with substance abuse. Additionally, participation in such challenging physical activities also teaches teens healthy activities that they can continue to participate in for a lifetime.

    Individualized Treatment for Teens with Substance Abuse Issues

    Wilderness therapy should not be a “one size fits all” approach to helping your teen. A credible wilderness therapy program will have a staff of caring and experienced therapists to properly assess your teen and provide them with an individualized treatment plan based on their history of substance abuse. Programs like RedCliff Ascent have therapists and field staff who model effective behavior and build strong relationships with each student. This helps participants develop healthier patterns and more effective coping strategies.

    Clinically-Proven Results for Teens with Substance Abuse Issues

    Lastly, wilderness therapy provides teens with substance abuse issues clinically-proven results. Researcher Keith Russell of the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Research Cooperative found that teens suffering from a variety of behavioral issues such as substance abuse, anxiety, and depression reported improvements in anxiety levels and depression, and did not backslide into substance abuse. These results were maintained at check-ins six months after the end of treatment.

    Benefits of Wilderness Therapy for Teens

    Being immersed in nature can have a profound impact on a teenager. It improves their mental, emotional and physical health. When combined with a research-backed clinical approach, a therapeutic wilderness experience helps teens heal from depression. Here are five specific benefits your family can expect to see while your teen is in wilderness therapy.

    Research indicates accurate mental health assessments can lead to a 20% reduction in treatment.

    Wilderness therapy provides a novel and challenging environment that disrupts the unhealthy patterns that cause your teen's mental health struggles.

    Teens living with severe depression often struggle to engage in ongoing treatment and have very high dropout rates. Poor engagement may lead to worse clinical outcomes, with symptom relapse and rehospitalization. Our research shows that even teens who have been resistant to therapy engage in the process while in wilderness therapy.

    RedCliff Ascent’s safe, nurturing, and supportive environment provides teens with the social and emotional learning skills they need to re-engage in healthy development.

    If you're like most parents, you don't want to just get rid of your teen's mental health issues.  You want them to eventually become thriving, independent adults equipped with the skills necessary to be successful outside your home. These include:

    Resilience - the ability to successfully adapt to challenging situations despite risk and adversity. Resilience helps us develop social competence, problem-solving skills, critical consciousness, autonomy, and a sense of purpose.

    Leadership & Social Competence skills include qualities such as:

    • responsiveness, especially the ability to elicit positive responses from others;
    • flexibility
    • empathy
    • communication skills
    • and a sense of humor.

    Problem-solving skills - the ability to plan; to be resourceful in seeking help from others; and to think critically, creatively, and reflectively.

    Autonomy is having a sense of one’s own identity and an ability to act independently and to exert some control over one’s environment, including a sense of task mastery, internal locus of control, and self-efficacy. The development of resistance (refusing to accept negative messages about oneself) and of detachment (distancing oneself from dysfunction) serves as a powerful protector of autonomy.

    Sense of Purpose and a belief in a bright future, including goal direction, educational aspirations, achievement motivation, persistence, hopefulness, optimism, and spiritual connectedness.


    98% of students report feeling connected to RedCliff's staff and one or more of their peers.


    Upon completion of the program, 86% of parents reported improvement in their child's problems when compared to when they entered


    12 months after treatment 86% of parents reported that their child's problems are improved since they completed treatment

    How Does Wilderness Therapy Work?

    RedCliff Ascent has helped teens with mental health issues for almost 30 years and has conducted research since its inception. Through our research, we have identified seven principles that actually make a difference in helping your whole family recover from your teen's mental health issues.

    RedCliff Ascent rope bridge out in the field

    Healthy relationships are not only the foundation for growth and development but the launchpad for a successful future as well.

    Your teen will live in a small group where social influence and feedback can be given and received in a safe and supportive way. This safe environment teaches your teen to build healthy relationships with both their peers and mentors. Having the skills to make and keep healthy relationships is essential to overcoming depression.

    Treatment is most effective when it is responsive to your teen’s specific struggles, strengths, personality, sociocultural context, and preferences. Our evidence-based treatment approach combines decades of research and clinical expertise to personalize a treatment plan that fits your teen’s unique struggles, characteristics, culture, and preferences.

    One common theme in feedback from RedCliff Ascent’s students is that the challenging and novel environment provided them with a new perspective on their life and everything they knew before wilderness therapy.

    Novel physical environments are a place of contrast that confront the world views your teen takes for granted. This helps your teen to see with a fresh perspective and see new options available to them. Growth occurs outside of the comfort zone and is accelerated in environments that push physical and mental limits.

    Your teen's mental health issues didn't develop in isolation, it affects everyone in your family. The healing process should apply to your whole family as well. Parental involvement and family support during treatment greatly increase your teen’s progress in treatment and helps them to adapt after treatment.

    Communicating through handwritten letters provides a novel and powerful way to work through your family's struggles. You will also have access to our parent resource library, a weekly support call with other parents like you, as well as a weekly session with your child's therapist.

    Your teen's issues fill every aspect of their life. The best treatments must treat every part of their life as well. They use a holistic and integrated approach so that every aspect of your teen's life can heal from depression. In our treatment program, mentors, therapists, doctors, nurses, academic directors, nutritionists, and everyone on your teen's treatment team will meet together each week to discuss how to best help your child.

    Teens struggle to believe in themselves. By teaching basic primitive living skills, teens gain confidence in themselves that carries on to all aspects of their lives. By knowing that they are able to survive in nature, teens thrive at home, in school, and in their relationships.

    A ceremony is a powerful tool that can change your teenager's life. A ceremony is a community celebration or commemoration often having symbolic importance to the people performing it. A ceremony recognizes your teen's inner growth and experiences and attaches it to a physical symbol that your teen can take with them. A ceremony can help your teen validate and internalize the growth they have achieved.

    Exclusionary criteria for RedCliff Ascent include:

    • Teens younger than 13 and older than 17.5
    • Teens with a physical limitation, i.e. wheelchair, crutches, etc.
    • Teens with conditions that need intensive medical care or monitoring, i.e. eating disorders, diabetes, etc.
    • Teens with a history of violence or sexual assault
    • Teens with psychosis or schizophrenia

    RedCliff Ascent does not take Medicare or Medicaid.


    Is Wilderness Therapy Right for Your Teen?