Question: I know my tween has been experimenting with alcohol and smoking. Do I need to worry about substance abuse already, or is this just a part of growing up?
Answer: Tweens do become increasingly likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol, just as they are more likely to take many more risks now than when they were younger. Thankfully, substance abuse disorders seem to be highly uncommon in preteens. Although more data is needed – most studies focus on people over age 12 – substance-related disorders do not seem to exist at all in children 11 years of age and younger and only 0.1% of 12-year-olds seem to have such a disorder. Rates rapidly climb after that point, though, with about 8.7% of 17-year-olds having substance abuse disorders.
The question is not necessarily whether your child has a substance abuse problem right now, but whether he or she is on the road to having problems in the coming years. Researchers have consistently found that the earlier a person begins to use substances, the more likely they are to develop substance abuse problems later on. One study in particular found that children who abuse drugs and alcohol before the age of 15 are 3.6 times more likely to have dependency on drugs later in life. In addition, pregnancy before age 21 was more common among the girls who abused early in life, affecting one third of the girls in the study.
Your child is following a typical pattern in that two of the most common substances for early use are alcohol and cigarettes. These might not seem highly alarming since adults regularly use these substances – that is, they are not “illicit” in our society. It’s been found, though, that using less serious substances – such as alcohol and tobacco – may lead the way to the use of harder substances, including cocaine and heroin. Psychologists call this the “gateway phenomenon.” It should be noted, however, that all substances can and do cause a variety of health problems, especially in young and developing bodies. All substances should be considered “serious” when we're talking about tweens. In addition, 12-year-olds have been found to be using two rather concerning substances at rates as high or higher than cigarettes: inhalants and prescription drugs for nonprescription purposes. It’s possible, then, that the use you’re seeing is only part of the whole picture.
All in all, it’s unlikely that your tween currently has a substance abuse disorder. Nonetheless, discouragement of early use may be important for your child’s future well-being and his or her current health. In addition, if your tween begins to disengage from activities, to perform poorly in school, to become increasingly secretive and/or to display changes in health, be sure to contact your child’s doctor immediately.
Phares, PhD, Vicky. Understanding Abnormal Child Psychology, Second Edition. 2008. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Adolescent Substance Abuse Knowledge Base. Preteen Drinking. Accessed June 4, 2010: http://www.adolescent-substance-abuse.com/substance-abuse/preteen-drinking.htm>http://www.oas.samhsa.gov/2K10/inhalents/Spotlight001AdolInhalant.htm
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Office of Applied Studies. 12 year olds More Likely to Use Inhalants Than Cigarettes of Marijuana. Accessed June 4, 2010: http://www.oas.samhsa.gov/2K10/inhalents/Spotlight001AdolInhalant.htm