Is Teenage Stress and Substance Abuse Connected?

Published on January 5, 2023 by Rose Strawser

The short answer is yes. Nearly half of teens say that they experience high stress levels. Statistics show that highly-stressed teens will be three-times more likely to use marijuana and two-times more likely to use alcohol. Although some substance abuse can be related to past traumatic events and is used as an ineffective coping method, the every-day stress that we all experience can also lead some teenagers to choose alcohol or drugs.

Of the top causes of substance abuse: mental illness, history of trauma, low self-esteem, social pressure, lack of parental involvement, stress and academic pressures are also part of these causes for teens. Wait . . . did that say academic pressures? Most of us would have been able to guess several of these causes, but how many of us would have said that academic pressures would have been one of them? Pushing our children too hard to achieve straight A’s or becoming the top-scoring athlete can add to a teen’s risk factors for substance abuse. Obviously we all want our children to do well and we certainly try to encourage them to do their best. For most teenagers, that is positive encouragement. But if pushed too hard, given unrealistic goals, or made to feel not quite good enough if they don’t live up to certain standards, it may lead some teenagers to resort to substances to try to push down those feelings of fear and inadequacy.

What is considered stress? Although we often associate stress with negative instances or situations such as a death in the family or loss of a friend, loss of job, etc., stress can also include what is termed “good stress.” Performing a special recital, semester exams, trying to get into the college of their choice, practicing to make the varsity team of their favorite sport, etc., might sound like exciting and positive things but they can also be stressors and create a stress-response for teenagers.

Stress has shown to increase craving, anxiety, and negative emotions. Stress often increases our teen’s negative thoughts and emotions. Changing negative emotions is next to impossible, but we do have a little more power over changing our negative thoughts and actions. Try to recognize these negative emotions by listening to your teen’s comments. Negative statements such as “I always get bad grades in math” or “I’ll never make the team” or “Nobody wants to be my friend” are clues that your child may be stressed. Our initial instinct as parents is to simply disagree with these comments, but instead, we should try to give positive examples that show these statements do not hold weight. For example, we could say “last semester you had a B in math and your teacher was very pleased with your work”, or “Coach Jim said you’re doing really well” or “remember when you were sick and your friend Joe came to cheer you up?”

Role modeling can be an effective tool for teens. How often do they hear us, as parents, making negative statements about ourselves? In addition to using positive statements for our teens and their accomplishments, remember to use those same positive statements about yourself. Even though teens may pretend not to care what we say, they are listening, and those negative statements are being absorbed and repeated against themselves. Let your teens hear your positive words and see you taking care of your physical, emotional, and mental health in hopes that they will do the same.

Teens need to talk about their emotions. Allow your teens to talk through their emotions. Don’t give them the impression that their feelings are not valid or that you are too busy to listen. If they don’t feel comfortable opening up to you, connect them with a mental health professional or school counselor. Teen programs such as The Blues Program are also helpful by allowing teens the opportunity to talk with other peers who are experiencing similar stressors.

Rose Strawser

Contributing to this article is Blues TOT Trainer Holly Hardin, MA; written by Rose Strawser.