What Are the Risk Factors for Mental Health and Substance Use Disorder in Teens?

What Are the Risk Factors for Mental Health and Substance Use Disorder in Teens?

Adolescence is a developmental period that begins at the onset of puberty and carries into young adulthood, from ages 10 to 19. This period is a time of immense transition, especially as children begin to reach their teenage years. As so, teenagers are particularly vulnerable to mental health issues. 

As a parent of a teenager, it can be challenging to differentiate behavioral warning signs from normal teenage behavior. Becoming familiar with risk factors and warning signs for mental health and substance use disorders (SUDs) in teens is necessary for parents. This way, their teenager can get connected with support as timely as possible. 

Why Are Teenagers Vulnerable to Mental Health Problems?

As a parent, it can be challenging to try and place themselves in the shoes of a teenager. Large age gaps between parents and teenagers can make it difficult for parents to understand the pressures and stress their teen may be experiencing. Learning about why teenagers are vulnerable to added stressors and mental health problems can help parents better empathize with their teens.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) explains seven key facts worth noting about the teenage brain:

  1. The brain reaches its biggest size in early adolescence.
  2. The brain continues to mature even after its done growing.
  3. The teen brain is ready to learn and adapt.
  4. Many mental health disorders may begin to appear during adolescence.
  5. Teen brains may be more vulnerable to stress.
  6. Teens need more sleep than children and adults.
  7. The teen brain is resilient.

In summary, the teenage brain does not finish developing and maturing until an adolescent reaches their mid to late 20s. The last part of the brain to mature is known as the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for controlling impulses and thinking things through. 

While the teenage brain is in its primal developmental years, it tends to respond differently to high-stress situations compared to adults. This can increase teens’ risks of experiencing trauma and developing anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders. 

These years are also a prime time for experimentation as many teenagers attempt to ease their curiosity, especially when it comes to alcohol and drug use. However, substance use is undoubtedly problematic for teens’ development. Substance use can contribute to the development of addiction and other mental health disorders. 

Risk Factors for Mental Health and Substance Use in Teens

It is important for parents to become familiar with the risk factors that increase teenagers’ likelihood of developing mental health disorders and SUD. While these factors do not guarantee the development of a mental health concern, they can help increase parents’ awareness of potential emotional distress in their teens. 

Risk factors for mental health disorders and SUD tend to overlap. It is important to speak with teenagers about the potential consequences and dangers of substance use early on to reduce their potential of engaging with alcohol and other drugs. 

Genetic Risk Factors

These are factors that are passed through an individual’s genes. Having a family history of substance abuse or mental health disorders can make a teen more vulnerable to engaging with substances or developing mental health concerns. The presence of untreated mental health disorders can also increase a teen’s risk of developing SUD and vice versa.

Environmental Risk Factors

External factors can also influence a teen’s vulnerability to mental health disorders and substance abuse. Several environmental factors include:

  • Easy access to alcohol and drugs within the home environment 
  • Community poverty or homelessness
  • Experiencing trauma
  • Lack of parental monitoring and involvement
  • Family history of substance use 
  • Risky peer groups
  • Family or community rejection of identity
  • Low academic achievement
  • Lack of school connectedness
  • Insufficient access to mental health education, treatment, and support

Warning Signs to Watch Out for as a Parent

Parents can watch out for various warning signs in their teens that may indicate the development of mental health disorders or SUD. Some of these warning signs include:

  • Marked fall in school performance
  • Eating too much or too little
  • Sleep problems
  • Having little to no energy throughout the day
  • Isolating behavior
  • Feeling helpless or hopeless
  • Sexually acting out
  • Severe mood swings
  • Intense worrying that interferes with their daily life
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Engaging in substance use
  • Added conflict with peers or parents
  • Resisting authority

Some teens may exhibit little to no warning signs but still, severely struggle with their mental health. Talking with teens about their mental health is necessary to ensure that they prioritize their own well-being and happiness. 

Protective Factors for Parents

Suspecting that a teenager is experiencing mental health difficulties can be distressing for parents. One of the most important things parents can do for their teens is to ensure they have a reliable support system that they can utilize when they are struggling. Further, educating them on treatment resources and coping mechanisms can be instrumental in their ability to remain resilient when life throws obstacles their way. 

Additionally, there are a plethora of protective factors that parents can utilize to help prevent mental health concerns and substance abuse in their teens. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) notes the following protective factors:

  • Early intervention that targets multiple factors
  • Access to extracurricular, after-school activities 
  • Parental involvement in teen’s lives
  • Access to faith-based resources
  • Preventative interventions in school

Additional protective strategies include:

  • Connectedness to family 
  • Ability to discuss problems with parents or other peers
  • Family use of coping strategies 
  • High commitment to academic achievement
  • Close relationships with non-deviant peers

Being a parent of a teen is no easy feat. It can be especially challenging to know the difference between normal teenage behavior and warning signs of mental health struggles and substance use disorder (SUD). Parents of teens must become familiar with risk factors, warning signs, and protective factors to best support their teens during times of need. 12 South Recovery offers a treatment program specifically for young adults struggling with mental health problems. We offer a wide range of treatment interventions and resources that will help your teen overcome any mental and behavioral health disorders. Our team of trained professionals prioritizes compassion and individualized treatment above all else. To learn more, call us today at 866-839-6876.

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