One of the most consistently searched questions by parents after they discover their kids have dabbled with substances is: ‘Why do kids do drugs?’
The best time to learn, though, is before.
That’s why we’ve curated the best, most relevant research about the top 8 reasons why kids make the decision to try drugs.
Here’s a sneak preview:
REASON #1: THEY’RE NOT THAT SMART (YET)Raise your hand if you didn’t do something reckless or foolish when you were a teenager. Anyone?
Of course, we all did dumb things when we were growing up, some we got caught for and some we still have anxious nightmares about. It’s one of the key reasons why it’s so nerve-racking to be a parent. Whether you consider it a rite of passage to do something reckless or it scares you silly, no teenager will become an adult without doing at least a few things to test the limits. Our hope is to create an environment where the risks involved are as minimized as possible.
It’s important to understand what’s going on inside the brains of kids as they travel through adolescence. It’s easy to dismiss kids as reckless and foolish or to turn a blind eye to their exploits since perhaps we didn’t have any supervision when we were their age. The more we understand what’s going on in their development process, the better equipped we will be to guide them through the transition to take wise ownership of their lives.
The prefrontal cortex is the part of the human brain where rational and logical thinking occurs. In adolescents, it’s not developed…yet.
We’ve learned from brain researchers that a kid’s brain is not fully developed until around age twenty-five. That means teenagers lack the capacity to make informed choices for themselves and others that reflect common sense or logic. They can’t yet process through their personal values, either, and are driven more by emotion and a desire for the chemical highs that come from taking risks.
To put it another way, teenagers don’t yet have the capacity to think through the long-term consequences of their decisions. Rather than looking at their foolish choices through a lens of morality, it’s more productive to look at their behaviors through the lens of brain development.
What does that mean?
It means we need to be their thinking brain for a while longer. Developmentally, they’re all gas pedal and no brakes.
We need to help them make smart and healthy choices — we need to act as their brakes. When they lack the capacity to do so, we need to make those choices for them, when appropriate. This goes against the ‘cool parent’ philosophy of providing substances for teenagers to consume as long as there is adult supervision. Kids are uniquely susceptible to addiction compared to adults, and the potential damage to their development and health is real. In other words, don’t provide substances or turn a blind eye. You need to be their thinking brain and help them make the best choices that give them the best opportunity to thrive in life. Sure, you might not be thought of as cool, but it’s worth the cost.
If you could go back in time and add a voice of caution, wisdom, and long-term consequences, wouldn’t you?
REASON #2: THIRST FOR DOPAMINEMaybe you remember the PSA after-school specials from the ’80s and early ’90s. They told cautionary tales of hardcore peer pressure in the halls of high school. They made it seem overly simple to avoid drugs and alcohol: “Just say no”. But, that’s not the whole story. That’s not the only reason kids decide to do drugs.
Dr. Dan Siegel is a clinical professor of psychology at UCLA and has written a lot about how the brain works through the developmental stages of adolescence. One key finding he’s shared is the increased reward drive that’s unique in the adolescent brain. He says, “During adolescence, there is an increase in activity of the neural circuits utilizing dopamine, a neurotransmitter central in creating our drive for reward…this enhanced dopamine release causes adolescents to gravitate toward thrilling experiences and exhilarating sensations.”
That means teens are more impulsive and prone to risky behaviors — anything that will satisfy their brain’s craving for dopamine. Doing something risky means their brains will feel more fully satisfied than standing on the sidelines.
Teens naturally pull away from adults and instead invest most of their time and energy in peer relationships. That’s normal and expected. With their craving for dopamine from thrilling activities, teens will often turn to risky behaviors with substances to satisfy their craving – not to mention impress their peers. It’s not drugs or alcohol they crave, it’s the feeling they get after doing something risky.
But perhaps there’s an opportunity to work with our kids and their natural, healthy, thirst for dopamine. What could it look like to provide them opportunities to be thrill seekers in more controlled, safe conditions?
If you have a kid who’s especially interested in taking risks, then take the initiative to avoid their boredom turning to harmful substances. Give them opportunities to explore their desire for risk, but make sure it’s with helmets and harnesses. Thrill-seeking doesn’t just need to be through action sports, either, it can come from posting a TikTok video or doing standup comedy. It can come even through doing something challenging, like volunteering at a soup kitchen and engaging with unhoused people.
REASON #3: NEED FOR ACCEPTANCEKids who perceive themselves as popular, or who especially desire to be popular, are at a higher risk of substance use. The Journal of Adolescent Health published a study of nearly two thousand adolescents and found a high correlation between substance use and perceptions of popularity.
The search for popularity is linked to the desire for acceptance — everyone wants to fit in, blend in with the crowd, follow the social norms effectively, and play to the trends. Underneath that, though, is a deeper desire for belonging.
Belonging is different from acceptance or fitting in. The rules of acceptance are adhering to the group — if you deviate from the rules, you get rejected, shamed, or humiliated. The rules of belonging are different: even with your differences, even if you don’t fit in, we still want you here.
Our kids are growing up in a digital world with social media. No matter what new technology emerges, teens will continue to use social media and gaming platforms to interact with each other socially.
In fact, there have been some studies that have linked the intensive use of social media with increased predictive factors for substance use.
One opportunity in our current digital age is to help your kid reset their perception of themselves and what it means to be cool. Popularity is an abstract concept, and the measures kids use to evaluate it such as the number of likes on a social media post or the number of followers they have will always fail to give them what they’re looking for.
We want to help our kids find a group of friends they can belong to, and likely that will develop naturally as they spend time with other kids who share similar interests.
REASON #4: CONFUSED SOCIAL NORMSMaybe you’ve heard this defense before: “But everyone is doing it!” It’s the worst excuse in the book (true statement: look it up). To a kid, though, it’s not an excuse – it’s as good as fact.
That’s called the Social Norms Theory, and understanding it is the key to one of the most effective prevention strategies out there.
The simple idea is this — kids inevitably assume that “everyone is doing it” – that most kids are experimenting with harmful substances.
Maybe they heard the same story from three different friends at school, exaggerated with each re-telling of what some kid at school did at a party that weekend. Wherever they go on campus, “everyone” is talking about it. Their perception becomes inflated, distorting the truth.
But reality is different from perception. Most kids aren’t doing drugs or drinking alcohol.
That’s the Social Norms Theory in a nutshell. The proven prevention model aims to educate kids about the facts and realities of what’s really going on — how many other kids are actually drinking, vaping, and using drugs.
What the research has found over the years is when kids discover the truth that not as many kids as they think are doing those things, then they’re less likely to do them, too.
The truth is a powerful, effective prevention strategy.
If we can correct misperceptions and misinformation, our kids will be better off. If we can offer to them positive and aspirational examples of people who are deemed ‘cool’ and lead remarkably healthy, clean, lifestyles — and deliberately point that out to kids — then we can actually alter their normal instinctual habits. That’s it. That’s what we’re all about and what we’re trying to do with our videos and curriculum.
Let’s do it together — let’s put the correct information and role models in front of our kids deliberately so they can have the best opportunity to make the wisest decisions for themselves.
REASON #5: TO FEEL ADULT-ISHEvery teenager wants to become an adult, soon. They’re done with restrictions and sick of limits and rules. They want to organize and ordain everything around them – their time, what they eat, where they go, and what they do.
Do you remember as a teenager how much energy you spent trying to work your way around the restrictions your parents set for you? Everyone has a few secret memories they still hold onto and are nervous for their parents to find out even if they’re parents themselves.
Teenagers can’t stand boundaries and restrictions. And, they have excellent reasons, really. Developmentally, they’re in an important phase where they’re trying to figure out life on their own and prepare for a time soon coming when they will be responsible for themselves. They need to discover their boundaries and carve out their own path.
They want to stay up late. They want to watch what they want to watch. They want unlimited access to technology. They want the freedom to go wherever they want when they want. They want to discover how life will work best for them.
Parents, we know that’s a big part of the process. We know that we have to give more and more freedom and responsibility to our teenage children. In fact, we want to. We want to see them become more mature, wise, and thoughtful about how they steward their lives.
We know how the teenage years are an intense time of training for life. It’s a stressful time for them, not to mention for us. They’re under constant pressure to perform well academically, to fit in with their peers, and to make choices about their future as much as choices for their wardrobe. With so much stress and pressure, it’s no wonder they make some careless mistakes.
And, we also want them to be safe and make smart choices. We know how their developing brains have yet to grasp the wisdom they need to manage their own lives effectively. They still need us, although it looks different from when they were younger. They need us to start to serve as their coach and guide and steer them away from harm and towards experiences and choices that will assist them in growing up well.
Here’s the deal. As much as teens grate against the rules, restrictions, and boundaries adults set for them — they still need them. They aren’t wise enough (yet) to make the best choices for themselves. They lack the context, life experience, and ability to see how their current choices will affect them in the future. They need help in the form of guidance and especially through boundaries and guardrails we set for them. That’s our responsibility. We need to continue operating as their brake as they push down the gas pedal.
In fact, even though they roll their eyes and argue at every turn, they know deep down that the restrictions we set for them express our love and concern. Kids who have adults in their lives who give them too much freedom too early often develop a deep-seated belief that they aren’t valuable or worthy, and they carry that fundamental belief with them into adulthood.
REASON #6: CURIOSITYCuriosity isn’t just bad for the cat, it’s the key driver in many poor decisions made by teenagers throughout the ages. Since their brains aren’t fully developed yet, they lack the ability to process long-term consequences. Although we might dismiss them as naive or young, experimentation is actually a building block for understanding boundaries and limits.
That’s one of the reasons why parents might want to consider sharing their own experiences with experimentation when they were younger, especially to highlight the negative effects substance use had on their lives. If a teenager hasn’t ever seen or experienced inebriation, they might only consider the more exciting effects they see while watching a t.v. show or hear a peer talk about a party experience they had.
Also, parents can take initiative and talk about the harmful effects that alcohol and drugs can have on someone. Seriously, you can start a conversation with them by saying, “You might be curious about what it feels like to drink alcohol. Let me tell you…” By sharing what might happen to them, you might help extinguish some of the curiosity that would cause them to experiment.
REASON #7: ESCAPEIt’s not uncommon for teenagers to seek out releases from their frustration, anxiety, or pain. Since emotional and mental health isn’t something taught in schools (yet), most kids don’t have the capacity or the tools to manage uncomfortable feelings and experiences. If the adults in their life model an escape approach to negative emotions, then chances are, they’ll follow suit.
The danger is this: substances work. They numb our feelings and detach us from the implications of whatever situation we feel burdened by. At least in the short term.
The problem is in the long term. Not only will consuming substances like drugs and alcohol harm your life, and potentially turn into a lifetime of addiction struggles and health problems, but the underlying issues, feelings, and problems are carried forward.
Parents and adults who work with kids must be aware of the example they set. It’s easy to joke with other adults about a happy hour or ‘beer o’clock’ with teenagers around, giving them not-so-subtle messages that when life is stressful or hard, the quickest and most effective solution is to drink.
It’s also important to be mindful of the pressures and expectations that kids feel from their parents, peers, and culture.
Recently, new studies were released by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation which defined a new group of at risk-youths: teenagers who feel the pressure to perform at high levels. The Washington Post reports, “Luthar’s studies have found that adolescents in high-achieving schools can suffer significantly higher rates of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and delinquent behaviors, at least two to three times the national average. Some warning signs, like excessive peer envy and cheating, tend to emerge in middle school, but other symptoms of stress are being seen as early as elementary school. When a child’s sense of self-worth is dependent on what they achieve, it can lead to anxiety and depression. Anxiety can come from worrying about keeping up with or outshining peers, while depression can be caused by a failure to achieve.”
It might be easy to overlook a kid who’s doing well in school and exhibits personal responsibility for academics and their schedule as a kid who’s doing well in all areas of life. It’s important to check in about their stress levels and offer multiple avenues of stress relief.
REASON #8: BOREDOMWe’d like to introduce you to the groundbreaking work from Peter Benson. Peter’s TED talk, if you haven’t seen it, is revolutionary.
At the time of his research, Benson observed that our nation’s approach to children was all about deterring them from negative behaviors. Prior to him, “the predominant approach to youth development was naming youth problems and trying to prevent them.” (Wikipedia)
So, instead, he developed the assets approach — he focused on helping young people discover and define their strengths.
The key to the theory is to help kids find something that makes them come alive with joy, energy, and interest to cloud out any false claim a substance might make about what it can offer.
Benson’s developmental assets framework became the predominant positive youth development approach in the world, cited more than 17,000 times, and the framework and surveys developed to measure the assets have been used with more than 3 million youths in more than 60 countries.
In developing his approach, Benson interviewed thousands of kids and tracked them from early childhood to adulthood.
Kids that find their “spark” — another word for their “natural high” — are far more likely to lead happy and successful lives. They’re more likely to make healthier choices. They’re much more likely to avoid harmful, life-altering, substances. They’re much more likely to thrive.
Natural High has always talked about lighting youth up from the inside out, not the outside in. Kids spend a lot of time being exposed to lectures, facts, information on risks…and of course, this is important. But for Benson, the single most important concept was lighting kids up from the inside out.
Why are his findings so important? Why does Peter Benson’s decades of research matter to you?
Because it’s a key to understanding how to help your kid navigate through the perilous years of adolescence into thriving adulthood. In his groundbreaking book, Sparks: How Parents Can Ignite the Hidden Strengths of Teenagers, Benson gives hands-on advice for parents and educators on how to recognize a child’s spark and what to do once you do.
Understanding Spark Theory will help you identify your child’s spark and help it grow until it becomes the core of who they are and helps them make the right choices in life. It’s simple — and it saves lives.
What’s a spark?
It’s an activity that…
Do any of these sound familiar? Maybe you’ve seen your child’s eyes light up when they do a certain activity. Maybe they’re already familiar with what gives them that feeling like no other. Or maybe they’re still looking for that spark.
Multiple Authors including coalition staff, board members, and coalition members contribute to this page.