Risk Factors for Substance Abuse in Adolescents

A risk factor is defined as anything that increases the probability of a person using drugs.

Risk factors for adolescent substance abuse can be roughly divided into two categories. First are broad societal and cultural (i.e., contextual) factors. The second group includes factors that lie within individuals and their interpersonal environments.

Contextual Risk Factors

We live within a social context – the values and structure of the society. Shifts in cultural norms, in the legal definitions of certain behaviors, and in economic factors have been shown to be associated with changes in drug-using behaviors and in the prevalence of drug abuse.

A myriad contextual risk factors may exert influence on adolescents: laws and norms, drug availability, extreme economic deprivation, neighborhood disorganization, etc.

Two influential contextual risk factors are current drug laws and the availability of substances.

Lower legal drinking ages and lower taxation of alcohol are risk factors for the potential use and abuse of alcohol in a given geographical region.

When the legal age of drinking is increased, fewer alcohol-related traffic incidents are reported. Similarly, a higher taxation of alcohol in a geographic area is related to overall decreases in consumption.

The availability of drugs will vary across communities, partly related to the laws of the geographic region and the social norms of that area regarding drug use. In general, the more available drugs are in a given community, the more likely it is that adolescents will report using them.

Individual Risk Factors

Certain characteristics of individuals and of their personal environments are associated with a greater risk of adolescent drug abuse, such as:

  • experiencing problem behaviors from an early age (e.g., aggressiveness, negative moods and withdrawal, impulsivity)

  • having a coexisting mental health diagnosis (e.g., conduct disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder [ADHD], depression) or a learning disorder

  • problems in the family (e.g., low bonding to parent, parent abuse of substances, poor parenting practices)

  • problems in school (e.g., low academic achievement, low commitment to school)

  • association with drug-using peers, and early initial use of drugs

Two influential individual risk factors for adolescents are having a family member who abuses substances and associating with drug-using peers. For example, the risk of using drugs increases when an adolescent has a parent or older sibling who uses drugs.

In addition, adolescents who associate with drug-using peers have consistently been found to have higher levels of drug use; therefore, when an adolescent associates with other people (e.g., family member, peer) who use drugs, his or her risk of substance use increases.

Sources consulted:

Jason J Burrow-Sanchez. 2006. “Understanding Adolescent Substance Abuse: Prevalence, Risk Factors, and Clinical Implications.” In Journal of Counseling and Development, 84(3, Summer): 283-290.

J. David Hawkins, et al. 1992. “Risk and protective factors for alcohol and other drug problems in adolescence and early adulthood: Implications for substance abuse prevention.” In Psychological Bulletin, 112: 64–105.