Appropriate, timely ways to keep teenagers away from drug abuse

Author: Winifred Kisitu. PHOTO/FILE/COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • It is also vital to know the reasons for taking drugs so that intervention is tailored.   

Many people use drugs in their teenage years. In fact, many people who abuse drugs are most likely to have begun using them during adolescence and young adulthood. Most adolescents who use drugs, including khat (mairungi), tobacco, cocaine, illegal prescription drugs, alcohol, marijuana, shisha, heroin and inhalants, do not progress to become drug abusers or drug addicts in adulthood. A big number of teens experiment with substances a few times and stop; although sometimes stopping can be difficult.

Drug abuse affects the brain by raising the level of the chemical ‘dopamine’ in brain circuits that control reward and pleasure. Normally, natural activities such as playing sports, listening to music, hanging out with friends, and all the other highly motivating experiences release dopamine naturally, and in moderate amounts.

Drugs, unfortunately, produce intense amounts of dopamine; flooding the brain’s reward circuits with very high amounts than natural rewards generate. This creates an especially strong drive to repeat the experience – leading to cravings and resulting in drug dependency without adequately considering the consequences. 

The human brain does not fully develop until the age of 25 years. Because of this, teenagers struggle with balancing impulse and self-control. This means that they are more likely to take drugs again; making the brain to reinforce the link between pleasure and drug-taking stronger and stronger. Soon, taking drugs may assume an importance part in the teen’s life because of the quick and massive ‘high’ it produces compared to natural rewards.

Substance abuse is very risky. Even small use can have negative consequences. It can affect concentration and memory, decision making and mental health. It can also lead to more risky behaviour including unprotected sex. In adulthood it can lead to high blood pressure, sleep disorders and heart disease.

It is, however, important not to demonise teens taking drugs but rather seek for appropriate and timely ways to offer help. The first thing for the people in a teen’s life is to know the signs.

Although there are many, common signs include poor or sudden drop in grades, mood swings, excessive anger, insomnia, loss of interest in things they loved, refusing or forgetting to complete schoolwork, violent behaviour, struggling to remember things, frequent loss of money or valuables, bloodshot eyes, sneaking out, sleeping in class, wanting to spend time alone, drug odours, sudden increase or decrease in appetite, constant rule breaking and giving excuses, poor hygiene, stealing, excessive use of perfume, eye drops use, frequent use of chewing gum or breath mints. Note: Most subtle signs involve changes in behaviour rather than physical signs. 

It is also vital to know the reasons for taking drugs so that intervention is tailored. Teenagers use drugs for many reasons: low self-esteem, physical, emotional or sexual abuse, family history of substance abuse, conflict at home, peer pressure, self-image issues, academic pressure, adverse childhood events, lack of supervision, mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression, easy access to drugs, the believe that taking drugs is a cool thing to do or transitional periods such as starting a new school, moving house or entering puberty.

And when suspicions come true it helps for the adults in the teens life to stay calm. Even though it is natural to be upset, scream or even cry reacting in the moment will only send the teen underground.  The approach is to help the teen to see that their drug use, while inappropriate, does not define who they are. Emphasis should be on addressing the issue at hand while maintaining a positive relationship with the teen. 
One of the most important things about teens and drug abuse is not to wait for it to happen.

Teens see or hear about drugs and drug use and already possess information about some drugs. Because parents (and teachers too) play a critical role in the lives of teens it helps to have frequent, candid talks. Seek teens’ views about drug use and the consequences involved. Discuss ways to resist peer pressure. 


Children’s mental health should be given priority over academic success. There is nothing more frightening to a child than the fear of performing poorly and facing the wrath of their parents (or teachers). Tension and anxiety trigger the fight, flight or freeze response in the brain leading to the release of stress hormones including oxytocin, endorphins, cortisol and norepinephrine. This can cause damage to the growing brain making teens more vulnerable to drug abuse. 

Last but not least, teens crave genuine and respectful connection with significant adults in their lives. At school, a teacher’s role goes beyond imparting knowledge. As John C. Maxwell rightly said, “Students don’t care about how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Be approachable. Address each child by name. Discipline to teach rather than to inflict pain and shame. Find small ways to connect with each child every day - have personal conversations about a student’s interests and hobbies, notice and compliment personal aspects such as a child haircut/style, coat, shoes, look for genuine opportunities to provide positive feedback. 

At home, parents should endeavour to have genuine encounter moments with their child. Giving 100 percent focused attention – even 10 minutes a day can make all the difference. Children, whatever the age, spell love as time. It is also vital to know their comings and goings – what they engaged in, the friends they hang out with and their friends’ parents.  

Lastly, there is need for a drugs screening policy in every school. This is not an infringement on teens’ rights. Urine or saliva (oral mouth swab) testing can help to reveal who has used drugs and hence offer early intervention. Also, teens who abuse drugs tend to have drug-related items in their pockets, backpacks or room – such as small glass containers, seeds, cigarette rolling papers, powders, small plastic pouches and electronic (aka E) cigarettes that look like strange pens.

Winifred Kisitu, PhD Childhood Studies
[email protected]


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