Addiction Risk Factors in Young People

While trauma and early substance use increase risk, there are also protective factors that can help prevent addiction.

As children get older, they face increasing stress. This stress can come from academics, family dynamics, extracurricular pressures, social media influences, living in a rapidly changing body, and more. Amid all this, as young people enter middle and high school, they may encounter drugs for the first time.

It’s important to understand the risks of youth substance use, as well as the ways that families and broader communities can help prevent it.

Using substances at a young age increases addiction risk.

The human brain is still growing until a person’s early 20s. During young adulthood and teen years, the brain areas responsible for risk assessment and judgment are not yet fully developed.

During young adulthood, the brain areas responsible for risk assessment and judgment are not yet fully developed.

“The fact that this critical part of an adolescent’s brain is still a work in progress puts them at increased risk for making poor decisions (such as trying drugs or continuing to take them),” says the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

What’s more, drug use impacts a person’s brain in specific ways. So when a young person uses any substance — whether it’s a legal one like alcohol or marijuana, or an illegal one like meth or heroin — it’s going to be riskier, since their brains are still developing, forming connections, and learning patterns. Using drugs at a young age may unintentionally “teach” the brain to turn to substances in order to cope with stress or pressure.

Research shows that the earlier a person starts using drugs in their life, the greater the risk of long-term issues, like developing a substance use disorder.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) also increase addiction risk.

According to the CDC, the most common ACEs include witnessing violence or experiencing abuse or neglect. Being frequently intimidated or humiliated by adults, being hit so hard it left a mark, not having enough to eat, sexual abuse, persistent loneliness—these are all examples of experiences that can cause problems later in life. ACEs add up, too—a high number of ACEs increases a person's risk of health issues.

The more ACEs an individual has experienced, the more at-risk they are of later health problems.

ACEs are more common than you might think: The CDC reports, “61% of adults surveyed across 25 states reported that they had experienced at least one type of ACE, and nearly 1 in 6 reported they had experienced four or more types of ACEs.”

ACEs don’t just increase substance use disorder risk. ACEs also put people at greater risk of chronic health problems in the body, like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.

However, it’s important to remember that trauma is highly subjective and varies from person to person. An event that’s a traumatic experience for one person may not be an issue for another. What’s more, just because ACEs are present, that doesn’t mean a person is certainly going to engage in risky drug use or any other harmful behavior. These are simply pieces of the complex puzzle that makes up each individual’s health and happiness. The more aware caregivers can be of young people’s unique circumstances and challenges, the better they can offer individualized support and protective factors.

So, how can risky substance use be delayed or avoided entirely?

There are two key approaches to preventing addiction and other health problems in young people.

#1: Protective factors that ensure young people are healthy and supported.

There are two routes toward ensuring that young people receive the support they need: broadly through policy and social systems, and directly through caregivers and communities.

Policies and programs that the CDC recommends to prevent ACEs include:

  • Family-friendly workplace policies
  • Policies that help strengthen household financial security
  • Legislative and public awareness campaigns to reduce violence and adversity
  • High-quality childcare and preschool
  • Social-emotional learning
  • Safe dating and healthy relationship skill programs
  • Mentoring and after-school programs

Within communities, parents and family members, plus teachers, coaches and other adults can all play a part in nurturing protective factors among young people. Some examples include:

  • Loving, affirming homes
  • Healthy food and stable housing
  • Parental supervision and monitoring
  • A strong school connection
  • Strong neighborhood attachment

#2: Educational programs rooted in long-term research, respect, and real information.

A recent NIDA-funded study showed that prevention programs can have a multi-generational effect on improved outcomes. What’s more, these programs save communities much-needed funds. A 2008 SAMHSA analysis found that for every $1 spent on evidence-based prevention programs, $18 is saved.  

Despite this, prevention funding declined by more than a third for the decade ending 2019. With addiction and overdose rates on the rise, a greater investment in prevention is needed.

Prevention funding should be spent on programs that are effective and based on long-term research.

Successful prevention programs should:

  • Address the community’s specific needs
  • Involve the young people directly, making programs with them rather than for them
  • Involve the community’s schools and teachers

While they should not:

  • Rely on outside experts, one-off events, or band-aid type fixes
  • Exclusively offer information, like pamphlets or lectures, without the active involvement of the intended audience
  • Use scare tactics, which frequently backfire
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