Ask the Therapist: Speaking to Adolescents About Drugs

I remember making the commitment to never use drugs in the 6th grade through our local D.A.R.E program. In D.A.R.E, I remember learning about the negative consequences of drugs. Unfortunately, in the young adolescent mind, abstract thinking is still developing and the threat of consequences from drugs and alcohol can be easily dismissed. The idea of a young adolescent being “untouchable” is an everyday occurrence.

Now that I’m older, I think back to how uneducated I was about drugs. Even in my young adult years, after being exposed to drugs in high school, I did not know much about them. When I was a new youth minister and would learn that one of my teens was using drugs, I would wonder about the drug and the facts surrounding it. I feared not knowing what to look for when it came the symptoms of intoxication. I knew the side effects of drinking alcohol and marijuana, but I never knew the side effects and symptoms of drugs like speed or heroin. This made me uneasy.

I think it’s imperative for youth ministers to understand different types of drugs and know the basic symptoms of intoxication. For the purpose of this article, I want to educate you on the most popular street drugs and the warning signs of intoxication. I would also like to give you helpful tips on how to work with teens that have confided in you about drug use in relationship to themselves, a friend, or a family member.

Different Types of Drugs


Depressants, also known as “downers”

Alcohol and Heroin are the most popular depressants. Depressants will slow someone down and cause him or her to feel relaxed. Moods can alter between happy and angry, and they can make someone feel free from consequences. When someone begins having withdrawal symptoms after using a high quantity of alcohol or heroin for long periods of time, the person is at high risk for seizures and high blood pressure. Ultimately, these symptoms can lead to death.

While we may encounter teens that struggle with heroin use, I want to focus on the more accessible and higher used drug from this category: alcohol. Alcohol is the highest risk drug for addiction and cause of death. Although there is a decline in the use of alcohol among eighth graders (University of Michigan, 2014), the concern is for the availability of alcohol to younger adolescents. Most people have alcohol around to celebrate life events such as birthdays, holidays, graduations, Baptism, First Holy Communion, and Confirmation.

The effects of alcohol on the brain can alter a youth’s development during a time that it is important for them to increase their abstract thinking. Think of the movie Inside Out, when Joy entered into the “Abstract Thought” shortcut. It began to become unstable and changed (hopefully you’ve seen the movie and I’m not spoiling it for you). That’s because abstract thinking is developing in the brain at the age of 11 (the age of Riley in the film). Major credit to Disney on that one. When drugs or alcohol affects the brain, development can slow and in some cases stop completely. Imagine if Riley did not have a pathway for Joy and Sadness to get back to headquarters. They would have never returned, and Riley’s brain would not have been able to function properly ever again!


Cannabis, which is more widely known as “weed,”is a common hallucinogen, along with LSD/Acid, and PCP. The obvious side affect here is hallucinations. Again, I’d like to focus mostly on marijuana due to its highly accessible rate for younger adolescents. Most adolescents begin to use marijuana because they were invited by a friend to try it. Marijuana is also known as the “gateway” drug to harder street drugs. It’s important to know that teens that use marijuana are at greater risk of using hard drugs and have a higher chance of becoming addicts.

Stimulants, also known as “uppers”

Stimulants such as Coke, Crack, Crystal Meth, Methamphetamine, Ecstasy, nicotine, and caffeine are meant to keep someone excited. Usually, someone using these substances will have difficulty sleeping and will have a high arousal with bouts of excessive energy. Someone can overdose using these medications and the long-term side effects can be disturbing. Meth, for example, can result in serious skin damage causing someone to look much older than they actually are. Usually, people, who are depressed, enjoy taking “uppers,” to make them feel more “alive” or alert.

Opioids, also known as Painkiller medications

Painkillers such as Vicodin, Oxycontin (Oxy), Morphine, and Codeine are extremely heavy drugs that can cause a severe addiction due to the relief they provide someone when they are suffering from emotional and/or physical pain.

Younger adolescents may have access to these types of drugs if they suffer from an injury or know of a parent taking a medication. Younger adolescents have a very low rate of Opioid use. However, reported suicidal attempts of teens this age often sight opioids as the drug used during the overdose.

Working with the youth

When dealing with youth who are using drugs, I usually sit with them one-on-one and ask why they tried the substance(s). Learning why they first started using the substances, whether it is leisurely or not, will give you a lot of insight into what’s happening in their life. Teens are dealing with a lot of school and family issues. For younger adolescents, the change from middle school to high school can be intimidating, and the fear can become overwhelming and stressful. Teens may be dealing with a family crisis, or there may be someone in their family encouraging the activity and using with them. A family member could even be knowingly supplying them with the medication.

After speaking with a teen, I document what happened through our diocesan protocol and write an incident report. If the report isn’t easily accessible at that time, I make sure to write down the details of the incident immediately following the conversation in order to file an accurate report later.

If you find drugs, or a teen hands them to you and you aren’t sure what to do with them, know that your local authorities will collect the drugs from you and dispose of them properly. It is also important for you to find out as much information as possible about how the teen obtained the drugs. If an adult is the person supplying, consult with Social Services to see if a report needs to be made. I would also consult with your diocesan representative for youth ministry and adhere to the guidelines of your diocese. It would be important for you as a youth minister to ask the teen to join a local Ala-teen group in your area. It’s vital for teens to feel they have a community to talk to when it comes to past or present substance abuse.

When working with the parents

As a youth minister, you are called to be a shepherd of your flock. The teens are your sheep. When a parent comes to a meeting or an event with the warning signs of intoxication, it is important to pull him or her aside and speak to him or her away from other youth. As a caring youth minister, it would be important for you to want to offer your assistance to the parents, but your primary concern is the teens and their safety. Your judgment should lean towards protecting your youth first and ensuring that no harm comes to them while being free of any legal responsibility.

I have been in situations where I have had to call the police due to parents coming to pick up their teen from an event while intoxicated. I was scared, but my first reaction was to protect my teens, follow security protocol, and place our parish on lock down. It would be of benefit for you to discuss with your pastor and the diocese what to do in this situation. Most parishes have an emergency plan for crisis situations. If yours does, familiarize yourself with it. You do not want to be caught in a situation where you have to make difficult decisions if there is a policy already in place. You can be held legally responsible and liable for any damages.

Another crucial part of dealing with a parent in this situation is to follow your diocesan policies and always consult with Child Abuse Hotline (U.S. National Child Abuse Hotline is 1-800-4-A-Child). I would also recommend documenting the incident when dealing with a parent and I would inform them of a local AA (Alcohol Anonymous) or NA (Narcotics Anonymous) group. If you are unaware of a local NA or AA group, the website has a list of different groups all over the country.

If you currently know a teen, or a family member of a teen, who is struggling with substance use and addiction, please continue to pray for them and ask for the intercession of St. Jude. Pray that they may begin their journey of recovery and seek to fully rely on God for strength to overcome this horrible disease.

Reference: National Institute of Drug Abuse (2015). Monitoring the Future Study: Trends in Prevalence of Various Drugs for 8th Graders, 10th Graders, and 12th Graders; 2011 – 2014.


Edge just put out a great night on the increasing peer pressure middle schoolers and teens face while they grow up and what true freedom looks like called Wild Thing. Check it out!

About the Author

Cheyenne Vasquez

Cheyenne is a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern who works with severely emotionally disturbed adolescents from Southern California. On her spare time she enjoys singing, exercising, eating ding dongs, and napping (not in that particular order).

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