Is Drug Abuse the Result of Bad Parenting or a Lack of Drug Education?

Teenagers taking heroin drugs in a park.

Wouldn’t it be incredible if a parent could look their child in the eye and know, just know, exactly what was going to become a problem for that child in the future?

Every parent wants to set their kids up for a successful and happy life just as much as they can.

If parents could predict what their kids will struggle with, parents would get an idea of how to address the first glimmers of those issues early on.

When it comes to addiction in a child’s youth, most parents of young addicts feel remorse that they did not do a better job as parents to turn their child away from the path that ultimately led them to addiction.

Most parents feel especially bad when they cannot convince their now-adult child to get help, feeling as though it was somehow their fault that their son or daughter went on to become an addict.

Signs That an Adolescent Might Be Edging towards Addiction

An article in the New York Times featured a groundbreaking anti-drug prevention program being used in parts of Europe, Australia, and Canada. The program is called Preventure.

The program talks about how harmless, drug-free, medication-free, and label-free personality testing and back and forth communication techniques can detect children who are at “high risk” for drug abuse with ninety percent accuracy.

The truth is, the majority of teenagers who try alcohol, cocaine, opioids, methamphetamine, cannabis, etc. do not become addicted to these substances. So what’s different about the minority who do become addicted? What may or may not have been going on in this group’s youth that could have given us an insight into their drug addiction future had we known what to look for?

Traits That Might Push a Youth to Drug Use

The Preventure program indicates that there are four “precursors” or traits to look out for in childhood and adolescence that can set the stage for drug use later on. These traits are:

  • A tendency for sensation seeking
  • Impulsiveness
  • Anxiety sensitivity
  • Hopelessness.

A first glance that list might be a little discouraging, as probably every parent in America can find one of those traits in their kids. But to what extent? How often does it manifest? And how intense does it get?

Let’s look at each one.

Teenager playing computer games and eating.

Sensation seeking. People who are drawn to intense experiences are more likely to use drugs than people who are not. These so-called “adrenaline junkies” binge on other sensation-inducing activities such as long hours of video gaming, eating processed, fatty, and sugary foods to excess, engaging in promiscuous activities, etc.

All of these activities can manifest themselves in one’s youth, and while certainly not every teen who seeks intense sensation will turn to drug use, some of them certainly do.

Impulsiveness. Impulsiveness is a tricky one. Just about all kids display impulsive behavior from time to time. But true impulsiveness denotes an uncontrollable aspect to it.

Kids can get energetic and excited certainly, and they can act on impulse absolutely, but chronic, ongoing impulsiveness is a bit more specific. When a child or teen is being extremely impulsive in an area to the point where that impulsive action becomes harmful for them, that could lead to impulsivity in drug use later on.

Anxiety sensitivity. Anxiety sensitivity is a specific phenomenon. It means being overly aware and frightened by the physical signs of anxiety. It’s a sort of panic—a hyper-anxiety. Extreme anxiety can lead one to make poor choices such as, “I have to take this drug to make this extreme anxiety go away.” Anxiety can start at a very young age and then lead to drug use as a coping mechanism later on in life.

Hopelessness. Hopelessness is a precursor to depression. When a child or adolescent displays hopelessness, this is a red flag. Occasional sadness is not unusual, but no child should feel chronic hopelessness.

Medication is not the answer, as the side effects from that are often worse than the problem itself is. Rather, try to find the source of the child’s hopelessness, and help them work
through it.

These four traits are not uncommon, and they don’t always mean a child will grow up to use drugs, but they are traits for parents to watch out for. When they become manifest, they are calls to action to do something to help the child. 

Some of these traits may contribute to a successful future. Many of our successful athletes and entrepreneurs were thrill seekers and at times impulsive, so don’t squash adventure and creativity for fear it may lead to drugs.

How a Parent Can Help an Adolescent to Not Begin Drug Use

Prevention is always the best policy. It is easier to help someone to not use drugs to begin with than it is to help them get off of drugs once they have already started. With that in mind, how can parents help their kids who are displaying behavior signs which might lead to drug use later on in life?

Father having fun with two sons.

Sensation-seeking. Rather than letting your child pursue sensations which themselves might be harmful (dangerous activities, video games, pornography, promiscuity, bad foods, etc.), try and spend time with your child as a family, seeking sensations that are pleasant and enjoyable, but not harmful. Going for a family hike or camping trip, canoeing down a river, or even seeing a movie together are all safe sensations that don’t overdo it.

Impulsiveness. Impulsive behavior is best corrected by finding the child’s reason for being impulsive and addressing that. For a lot of kids, hyper-impulsivity comes from a sugary and processed foods-based diet, from being under-stimulated in school, from not being active enough, from lacking social circles, etc. Address these areas to lower impulsivity.

Anxiety sensitivity. Anxiety is probably one of the most common mental struggles that we face. Just about everyone struggles with this one from time to time. What can you do for your child, without medicating him, that can help lower anxiety sensitivity? Better diet? Exercise? Natural supplements and vitamins for holistically lowering anxiety? Making the home a safe space for them where they can feel comfortable talking about their struggles? Any of these or a combination of them can be helpful.

Mother teaching daughter to cook and having fun.
Hopelessness. This feeling usually comes from a loss such as a lack of success, a failure, a breakup, a death, losing a competition, losing a friendship, or in some way losing something. Hopelessness is best addressed by finding new areas or activities or goals to pursue and get excited about. 

Parents can help their child overcome losses and hopelessness, essentially pulling them back from the brink of depression and focusing them on new games, goals, aspirations, and ideals.

Effort towards Drug Prevention Is Effort Well Spent

Being a parent is certainly challenging. The entire experience is a constant questioning as to whether or not you’re doing the right thing in the right way and to the right degree.

That weighs on people, but try not to overthink it. Stay in close touch on a daily basis with your kids. Keep an eye on their behavior and their general attitudes towards life, and work with them and help them if they show behavioral signs that might lead to experimenting with drugs and alcohol later on down the road.

You will be happy you did.


Reviewed and Edited by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.