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What to Do If You Have a Problem with Drugs: For Teens and Young Adults

Revised June 2014

How do I know if I have a drug abuse problem?

Addiction can happen at any age, but it usually starts when a person is young.  If you continue to use drugs despite harmful consequences, you could be addicted. It is important to talk to a medical professional about it—your health and future could be at stake.

Have friends or family told you that you are behaving differently for no apparent reason––such as acting withdrawn, frequently tired or depressed, angry or hostile? You should listen and ask yourself if they are right—and be honest with yourself. These changes could be a sign you are developing a drug-related problem. Parents sometimes overlook such signs, believing them to be a normal part of the teen years. Only you know for sure if you are developing a problem because of your drug use. Here are some other signs: 

  • Hanging out with different friends
  • Not caring about your appearance
  • getting worse grades
  • Missing classes or skipping school
  • Losing interest in your favorite activities
  • Getting in trouble in school or with the law
  • Having different eating or sleeping habits
  • Having more problems with family members and friends

There is no special type of person who becomes addicted. It can happen to anyone. (See NIDA’s video, “Anyone Can Become Addicted to Drugs.”)

Thanks to science, we know more than ever before about how drugs work in the brain, and we also know that addiction can be successfully treated to help young people stop using drugs and lead productive lives. Asking for help early, when you first suspect you have a problem, is important; don’t wait to become addicted before you seek help.  If you think you are addicted, there is treatment that can work. Don’t wait another minute to ask for help.

Anyone Can Become Addicted to Drugs

Why can’t I stop using drugs on my own?

Repeated drug use changes the brain. Brain-imaging studies of drug-addicted people show changes in areas of the brain that are needed to learn and remember, make good decisions, and control yourself. Quitting is difficult, even for those who feel ready. NIDA has an excellent video (below) that explains why drugs are so hard to quit (hint: it’s all about the brain). If you aren’t sure you are addicted, it would be helpful for you to look at this brief video. It helps explains why your inability to stop using drugs does not mean you’re a bad person, just that you have an illness that needs to be treated.

Why Are Drugs So Hard to Quit

If I want to ask for help, where do I start?

Asking for help is the first important step. If you have a good relationship with your parents, you should start there. Ask them to read "What to Do If Your Teen or Young Adult Has a Problem with Drugs", which is similar to this page but written for parents. If you do not have a good relationship with your parents (or if they are having some problems of their own and might need help), find an adult you trust and ask them for help.

The next step is to go to your doctor.  You might want to ask your parents to call your doctor in advance to see if he or she is comfortable discussing drug use. Believe it or not, sometimes doctors are as uncomfortable discussing it as teens are!  You will want to find a doctor who has experience with these issues. Your parents can find you a great doctor by checking out this fact sheet.

Together with your parents and doctor, you can decide if you should enter a treatment program.  If you do not have a good relationship with your parents, ask another adult you trust to help you make that decision.

It takes a lot of courage to seek help for a possible drug problem, because there is a lot of hard work ahead and it might get in the way of school and social activities. But treatment works, and you can recover. It just takes time, patience and hard work. Treatment is important, because you will not be ready to go out into the world on your own until you take care of this issue. Treatment will help you counteract addiction's powerful hold on your brain and behavior so you can regain control of your life.

I’ll talk to a doctor, but I am afraid they will tell my parents everything. Can I prevent that?

There are privacy laws that prevent your doctor from telling your parents everything. They can’t even tell law enforcement about your drug use, in case that worries you. But your parents might ask you to sign a permission form, so your doctor can discuss your issues with them. If you feel your parents are truly trying to help you, you should consider signing the form, because having accurate information will help them find the right care and treatment for you. For more information on how private medical information is protected by law, read the HHS information on Health Information Privacy (HIPAA).

There is one exception to this rule: Doctors can speak to parents and some officials if they think you are in danger of hurting yourself or others.

If you feel you are being abused by your parents or caretakers, you should discuss with your doctor or contact a school counselor.  If you are being abused, you can call the National Child Abuse Hotline for help at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453).

What will the doctor ask me?

The doctor will ask you a series of questions about your use of alcohol and drugs and other risky behaviors like driving under the influence or riding with other people who have been using drugs or alcohol. Your doctor can help you the best if you tell the truth. The doctor might also do a urine and/or blood test.  This will provide important information about your drug use and how it is affecting your health.

If your goal is to truly get better and get your old life back, you should cooperate with your doctor. If you think problems at home are only making it harder to stay clean, share that information with your doctor. If they recommend counseling or treatment, you should give it a try. There is a whole network of trained adults out there who want to help you.

What is treatment like?

Treatment for drug problems is tailored to each patient's unique drug abuse patterns and other medical, psychiatric, and social problems.

Some treatment centers offer outpatient treatment programs, which would allow you to stay in school, at least part time.  Some teens and young adults, though, do better in inpatient (residential) treatment, where you stay overnight for a period of time. An addiction specialist can advise you about your best options.

NIDA has created an online publication outlining the best treatment principles for your age group. You might want to have this information handy when you talk to treatment centers, to help you ask the right questions.

I don’t feel well when I stop using drugs. Do treatment centers force people to stop taking drugs immediately?

Treatment is always based on the person’s needs. However, if you are still using a drug when you are admitted to a treatment program, one of the first things they need to do is help you safely remove drugs from your system (called “detox”). This is important, because drugs impair the mental abilities you need to make treatment work for you.

When people first stop using drugs, they can experience different physical and emotional withdrawal symptoms, including depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders, as well as restlessness and sleeplessness. Remember that treatment centers are very experienced in helping you get through this process and keeping you safe and comfortable during it. Depending on your situation, you might also be given medications to reduce your withdrawal symptoms, making it easier to stop using.

Who will be helping me in treatment?

Different kinds of addiction specialists will likely be involved in your care—including doctors, nurses, therapists, social workers, and others. They will work as a team.

Are there medications that can help me stop using?

There are medications that help treat addiction to alcohol, nicotine, and opioids (heroin and pain relievers). These are usually prescribed for adults, but sometimes doctors may prescribe them for younger patients. When medication is available, it can be combined with behavioral therapy for added benefit.

Medications are also sometimes prescribed to help with drug withdrawal and to treat possible mental health conditions (like depression) that might be contributing to your drug problem.

Your treatment provider will let you know what medications are available for your particular situation. You should be aware that some treatment centers don’t believe a drug addiction should be treated with other drugs, so they may not want to prescribe medications. But scientific research shows that medication does help in many, many cases.

Read more about what treatments are available to treat your addiction.

I tried rehab once and it didn’t work—why should I try it again?  

If you have already been in rehab, it means you have already learned many of the skills needed to recover from addiction, and you should try it again. Relapsing (going back to using drugs after getting off them temporarily) does not mean the first treatment failed. People with all kinds of diseases relapse; people with other chronic diseases like high blood pressure, diabetes, and asthma relapse about as much as people who have addictions.

Treatment of all chronic diseases, including addiction, involves making tough changes in how you live and act, so setbacks are to be expected along the way. A return to drug use means treatment needs to be started again or adjusted, or that you might need a different treatment this time.

What kind of counseling should I get?

Behavioral treatments (counseling or “talk therapy”) help teens and young adults increase healthy life skills and learn how to be happy without drugs. They can give you some coping skills and will keep you motivated to recover from your drug problem.

Counseling can be one-on-one with a doctor, but some of the most effective treatments for teens are ones that involve one or more of your parents or other family members. You can read more about the different kinds of behavioral treatment options.

I have heard of support groups. What are those like?

These groups—called peer support groups—aren’t the same thing as treatment, but they can help you a lot as you go through treatment and afterward. Self-help groups and other support services offer you an added layer of social support, to help you stick with your healthy choices over the course of a lifetime.  If you are in treatment, ask your treatment provider about good support groups.

The most well-known self-help groups are those affiliated with Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Cocaine Anonymous (CA), and Teen-Anon, all of which are based on the “12-step”approach.  You can check the Internet sites of any of these groups for information about teen programs or meetings in your area. 

There are other kinds of groups that can provide a lot of support, depending on where you live. To find support groups in your area, contact local hospitals, treatment centers, or faith-based organizations.

Other services available for teens include recovery high schools (in which teens attend school with other students who are also recovering) and peer recovery support services.

I don’t like lying to my parents but they don’t understand me and my problems. If we talk about drugs, they will just yell at me. How can I avoid a fight?

First of all, remember that they were teens once, and they understand teen life more than you think. Second, when you first tell them about your problem, they might get angry out of fear and worry. They might raise their voices because they are very, very worried about you and your future. Try to stay calm and simply ask for help. Repeat over and over again that you need their help.

Parents do get angry when they find out their kids have been lying to them. You’d do the same! Be honest with them. Let them know you want to change and need their help.

I am also afraid my parents will take away the car keys—what can I do about that?

The single most responsible thing you can do is stop driving until you get help for your drug use. This might be inconvenient, but if you do drugs and drive you could end up not only killing yourself but killing others as well. That could lead to a lifetime in prison. This is no different than drinking and driving. For more see our DrugFacts on Drugged Driving.

If you tell your parents that you are willing to give up your driving privileges, they will know you are serious about getting help.

Taking drugs helps me feel less depressed—what’s wrong with that?

The relief you feel is only temporary and can cause more problems down the road, as your brain and body start to crave more and more drugs just to feel normal.  It is very possible you need to find treatment for your depression as well as for your drug use. This is very common. It is called “comorbidity” or “co-ocurrence” when you have more than one health problem at the same time. 

Be certain to tell your doctor about your depression (or other mental health problems) as well as your drug use. There are many non-addictive medicines that can help with depression or other mental health issues. Sometimes doctors do not talk to each other as much as they should, so you need to be your own best friend and advocate—and make sure all of your health care providers know about all of the health issues that concern you. You should be treated for all of them at the same time. For more information see our DrugFacts on Comorbidity.

If you ever feel so depressed that you think about hurting yourself, there is a hotline you can call: 1-800-273-TALK (8255.) this is called the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and you can share all of your problems with them. A caring, non judgmental voice will be on the other end, listening.

Where can I find information on specific drugs?

You can review the NIDA for Teens site, with information on a variety of drugs and drug abuse issues.

The NIDA web site also has information on specific drugs, including their effects on the body, brain, and behavior.

NIDA also has an Easy-to-Read Web site with information about many drugs.

You can also check out NIDA’s PEERx interactive videos, that focus on prescription drug abuse, or the Schoalstic e-poster that discusses health effects of drugs.

Where can I find more information on treatment and recovery?

More information on what to expect in treatment and recovery in our publication on the science behind addiction: Drugs, Brains, and Behavior - The Science of Addiction, written by NIDA scientists based on many years of research.

There is more information on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration’s resource page on Treatment, Prevention and Recovery.

You might also want to check out the Web sites of some other NIH Institutes:

This page was last updated June 2014