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Grand Futures: Risk and protective factors for youth substance abuse

For young people, it can be a challenge to see how choices now may affect them later. But it is important to help make the connection. Early substance use increases the risk of substance use disorder in adolescents and young adults. By recognizing risk and protective factors influencing your youth’s relationship with substances, you can help cultivate an environment where they thrive. 

A risk factor many parents may be familiar with is the presence of a childhood psychiatric disorder. A 2017 study demonstrated the presence of anxiety, attention deficit hyperactive disorder, depression, conduct disorder or oppositional defiant disorder showed an increased risk of future substance abuse. While many mental illnesses are not preventable, they are treatable through counseling, medication and positive lifestyle choices. 

Another risk factor is community normalization of substance use. Adult favorable attitudes towards alcohol, tobacco or other drugs, increase the same attitudes among youth and may initiate substance use earlier than peers. It is important for parents and other adults in a youth’s life to demonstrate the attitudes they want youth to adopt.

While risk factors put youth in a vulnerable position for substance abuse, protective factors promote successful youth development by countering negative risk factors. Protective factors help successfully navigate stress and encourage positive choices. A high level of community engagement among youth is a protective factor against substance use.

Parental supervision has been shown to be a protective factor for youth substance abuse for both legal and illegal substances. Being actively involved in your youth’s life may seem overbearing, but it is important to know their habits and attitudes around partying, and whether their peers are users. Not all parents have the capacity to be highly involved in their youth’s lives, but other trusted adults can play a key role. 

Trusted adults can be parents, coaches, teachers, youth ministers and anyone with the ability to form trusting relationships with youth in their lives. Young people need to have adults in their lives who exemplify healthy behaviors and decision-making, and who they are comfortable talking openly with. By having someone to talk to without fear of judgment or anger, youth are more likely to be open about struggles, including attitudes towards substances. 

Whether you are a parent or a trusted adult, it is important to have open and honest communication with youth in your lives. Our job is not to control youth, but help set them up for success. You can inform yourself as best you can so you know the decisions you’re making will help prepare youth to live healthy, productive lives. For more resources on risk factors, protective factors and substance abuse, visit grandfutures.org.

Written and edited by Rachel Kandierski and Amber DeLay of Grand Futures.


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