3 Main Causes of Teen Addiction

By Holly V. Kapherr

If young adults use alcohol before age 15, their risk for alcohol dependence or abuse is six times greater than if they started at 21, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When you find out your teen or a teen you love has fallen prey to addiction to drugs or alcohol, you might ask yourself these questions:

  • Why has this happened?
  • Is there something I could have done to prevent this?
  • Is this my fault?

It is completely normal to have these thoughts and feelings, but it’s important to recognize that there are many factors that could contribute to addiction. Some teens are more prone to addiction because of their social environment at home or school and the normalcy of drug or alcohol use. Others might be more likely to become an addict because of hereditary factors such as depression or other co-occurring disorders. Still others may use alcohol and drugs as an escape from the challenges of teen life. A combination of these factors is possible as well.


The desire to be loved and accepted can drive many of the actions teenagers take throughout their young adult lives. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, both home and school environments are major factors in whether a teen is exposed to drugs and alcohol and how they react to them. At home, the presence of parents or older family members who abuse alcohol or drugs increases children’s risk of addiction to those substances. While at school or with their friends, teens exposed to drugs and alcohol through their peer group are more likely to try, use and abuse those substances. Academic failure, poor social skills and poor relationships with families and friends can also put teens at further risk for addiction.

There are many ways to mitigate a teen’s relationship to substances before it creates real issues. Teaching a child to maintain and develop self-control is paramount. It is also important that parents remain vigilant and know who their children are spending time with and where. Developing positive relationships with your teen and measuring academic competence is also part of the process. You may need to provide assistance to help your child succeed.


Between 40 and 60 percent of a person’s vulnerability to addiction comes from genetics, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Environmental and psychological factors can play a role in the expression of those traits as well, so it’s not guaranteed that the children of someone with a history of alcoholism or drug abuse will also struggle with addiction.

Teenagers are also at risk for addiction because their brains are still developing, and the control centers in their brains that regulate decision making and self-control are not fully functional at that age. Judgement centers in the brain, located in the prefrontal cortex, are also prone to dysfunction or underdevelopment at this age — the prefrontal cortex does not fully develop until age 25.


It isn’t easy being a teenager. During the teenage and young adult years, we are still trying to figure out who we are, what we stand for and what’s important to us. Teens are partly susceptible to drug and alcohol abuse because they are still learning to control their impulses and do not fully understand the consequence of pleasure-seeking. The “happy hormone” dopamine is released during drug and alcohol consumption, and teens can become addicted to that feeling of euphoria.

Teenagers are also susceptible to mood and hormone imbalances, which can lead to depression, stress and anxiety. They are also coping with new sexual impulses and romantic feelings they might not be sure what to do with. Resisting social pressures is more difficult than ever. Part of growing up is asserting independence, rebelling and taking risks. All of these challenges, according to a 2011 Harvard Health blog, are reasons drug and alcohol addiction can take such hold over teenagers and young adults.

What to Look For In a Treatment Center

You might think all rehab centers are created equal, but there are some specific things to look for when choosing a treatment facility for your child.

First, make sure that the center you choose uses evidence-based treatment. Many facilities have the best intentions when it comes to care, but their methods are not based in scientific research. This can have a negative effect on your teen’s addiction, as failed treatments can lead to relapse and worsening of the addiction.

A rehab center should also specialize in teen addiction and provide facilities and activities that meet a teen’s needs for recovery, such as single-sex dorms and group therapy. The doctors and clinicians at the center should also be certified in family and child psychology because family therapy is an integral part of rehabilitation for teens. If the whole family doesn’t buy into the process, the recovery of the teen is in jeopardy.

There are plenty of resources for finding the right facility for your addicted teenager. You can call 1-800-662-HELP to reach the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, or search the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator.

Holly V. Kapherr is a professional editor and writer. She started her career in 2007 and has served as an editor for several national print magazines and websites. For ten years, she has specialized in culinary, travel, lifestyle, family and health reporting and feature writing. Her work has been published in the New York Post, Parenting, Marriott Traveler and others.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016, October 20). Underage Drinking. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/underage-drinking.htm

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2016, November 17). Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health. Retrieved from https://addiction.surgeongeneral.gov/surgeon-generals-report.pdf

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014, July). Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/drug-abuse-addiction

Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. (n.d.) Drugs & Teen Moods. Retrieved from http://www.drugfree.org/why-do-teens-act-this-way/effects-of-drugs-on-the-brain-teen-moods/

The Harvard Health Blog. (2011, March). The Adolescent Brain: Beyond Raging Hormones. Retrieved from http://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/the-adolescent-brain-beyond-raging-hormones