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Preventing Drug Use among Children and Adolescents (In Brief)

When and how does drug abuse start and progress?

Studies such as the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, formally called the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, reported by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, indicate that some children are already abusing drugs at age 12 or 13, which likely means that some begin even earlier. Early abuse often includes such substances as tobacco, alcohol, inhalants, marijuana, and prescription drugs such as sleeping pills and anti-anxiety medicines. If drug abuse persists into later adolescence, abusers typically become more heavily involved with marijuana and then advance to other drugs, while continuing their abuse of tobacco and alcohol. Studies have also shown that abuse of drugs in late childhood and early adolescence is associated with greater drug involvement. It is important to note that most youth, however, do not progress to abusing other drugs.

Preventive interventions can provide skills and support to high-risk youth to enhance levels of protective factors and prevent escalation to drug abuse.

Scientists have proposed various explanations of why some individuals become involved with drugs and then escalate to abuse. One explanation points to a biological cause, such as having a family history of drug or alcohol abuse. Another explanation is that abusing drugs can lead to affiliation with drug-abusing peers, which, in turn, exposes the individual to other drugs.

Researchers have found that youth who rapidly increase their substance abuse have high levels of risk factors with low levels of protective factors.32 Gender, race, and geographic location can also play a role in how and when children begin abusing drugs.

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Parents can use information on risk and protection to help them develop positive preventive actions (e.g., talking about family rules) before problems occur.

Educators can strengthen learning and bonding to school by addressing aggressive behaviors and poor concentration—risks associated with later onset of drug abuse and related problems.

Community leaders can assess community risk and protective factors associated with drug problems to best target prevention services.

This page was last updated October 2003

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