Stress Takes the Lead as a Primary Reason Why Young People Turn to Drugs and Alcohol

Stressed young girl

For years, parents have been encouraged to have one-on-one conversations with their children about how to say no to drugs. These conversations have been essential in steering young people away from peer pressure situations and in helping them avoid being exposed to drugs. While these conversations are still very important, new research shows that stress, not peer pressure, is now the leading, underlying issue that compels young people to experiment with drugs.

What the Findings Show

The kids are not alright, or at least that’s the result of a recent study published by the CDC. Researchers with the CDC looked at data on 9,500 people ages 13 to 18 who all had substance abuse problems and who all answered survey questions sometime between 2014 and 2020. The teens surveyed were using a myriad of substances, including alcohol, marijuana, prescription opioid painkillers, prescription stimulants, and prescription sedatives.

The questions varied, but one question and its answer stood out. The teens were asked, “Why do you think you’re using substances?” The need to “ease stress” was the most commonly reported answer. That answer came in different forms. “To feel mellow, calm, or relaxed,” “to stop worrying about a problem or to forget bad memories,” and “to help with depression or anxiety” were a few of the most common responses.

The responses varied beyond those examples, but they all shared a similar theme, i.e., to relieve stress.

Some of the teens reported they were using drugs and alcohol to “have fun,” “experiment,” and “engage with others,” which are all indicative of group drug use settings and peer pressure. However, rather than these reasons being the majority response (as they had been in the past), the majority response in the recent report was a stress-based incentive, not peer pressure or an interest in “experimentation.”

Teenager drinks alone

Another factor is worth pointing out because it is indicative of the shift in teen drug use behavior in recent years. While previous surveys showed the vast majority of teens almost always used drugs in group settings, about 50% of today’s teens are using drugs alone, the highest-ever reported proportion of isolated drug use ever recorded among young people.

These factors, using drugs because of stress and increasingly turning to drugs when one is alone, are extremely alarming. Drug use is always dangerous, but it is even more dangerous when one uses alone, as there is no one nearby who may provide help should the user overdose. Further, teens using drugs because of stress suggests they’re using mind-altering substances as a coping mechanism (to deal with stress) as opposed to using drugs because they’re being peer pressured to use with friends in group settings. Using drugs as a coping mechanism sets the stage for addiction.

Stress is on the Rise, Especially Among Young People

Some studies are reporting young people today are experiencing above-average stress levels for this age group, sometimes well beyond other age groups. For example, the American Psychological Association (APA) reported that Americans aged 18 to 34 register their stress at an average of six out of ten, compared to 3.4 out of ten for Americans aged 65 and older.

That report by the APA highlighted financial concern as a leading cause of stress in young people, and other reports back up that hypothesis. According to Developmental Science research, young adults and teens today are much more worried about money than older adults. Young people are also reporting increasing stress levels resulting from a host of social ills and societal problems that teens are acutely aware of, including issues like gun violence, mass shootings, school shootings, increasing isolation, too much time on social media, rising suicide rates, climate change, immigration separation and deportation issues, sexual harassment and assault, and poor economic prospects.

Parents Should Continue Coaching Their Kids About Peer Pressure, But They Should Also Talk to Them About Stress

Parent talks with a son about stress

Peer pressure is still one of the leading causes of teen drug use, especially first-time drug use. But as young Americans become increasingly aware of the personal and societal challenges they face, it seems stress has overtaken peer pressure as the leading reason why young people turn to drugs. Whereas young people of previous generations used drugs to fit in and have fun, young Americans today are using drugs to cope with feelings of helplessness about the challenges they face. Parents must find ways to help their kids with these issues, too.

It’s not enough for parents to teach their kids to say no. Parents must also help their children overcome the reasons why they might want to say yes.


  • CDC. “Characteristics of Alcohol, Marijuana, and Other Drug Use Among Persons Aged 13–18 Years Being Assessed for Substance Use Disorder Treatment—United States, 2014–2022.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2024.
  • APA. “Gen Z adults and younger millennials are ‘completely overwhelmed’ by stress.” American Psychological Association, 2023.
  • DS. “Our Teens Are More Stressed Than Ever: Why, and What Can You Do About It?” Developmental Science, 2019.


Editorial Staff