The Progressive Stages of Adolescent Substance Abuse Disorder
The Progressive Stages of Adolescent Substance Abuse Disorder

The Progressive Stages of Adolescent Substance Abuse Disorder

The Stages of Progression: Adolescent Substance Abuse (Experimentation) to Drug Addiction)

According to the most recent studies, as many as 1.24 million teens have a substance abuse disorder, with millions more experimenting and 'at-risk' to develop a SUD.

When it comes to the development of adolescent-addiction, the process is progressive. This step-by-step progress can take its time (months to a year) or develop rapidly (where a teen becomes 'hooked' after their first taste).

Regardless of the rate of speed with which it takes a teen to become addicted, however, the following six stages of development remain the same: first time usage, experimentation, regular usage, increasingly risky substance usage, dependence, and finally, substance abuse disorder diagnosis.

The Stages of Addiction

Stage 1: First Time Usage - 'Everybody's Doing it!'

While there are far more adult drug abusers, most people who use drugs try drugs for the first time during adolescence. This first-time usage is what addiction experts call, "the initiation phase."

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services most recent report, over 4,000 teens use drugs for the first time, every day.

According to the same report, teens typically choose to try drugs for the first time for a few of the following reasons:

  • They are curious
  • Those whom they hang around are using drugs
  • Their developing brain is prone to making impulsive decisions

Stage 2: Experimenting with Various Substances - 'Just Having Fun'

This phase of addiction development occurs after the user begins using substances situationally. For teens, this situational-usage typically refers to social gatherings or environments where the goal is to have fun with others who are also using.

During this stage, teens are still somewhat in control of their using habits as they only use in certain environments, with certain people, and abstain from using unless they are immersed in said environment.

Stage 3: Regular Usage - 'Drug of Choice'

This stage, of course, is just like it sounds: a user begins using one or more types of drugs on a more regular basis.

At this stage, it is still common for teens to use with others within their peer group of friends. However, unlike the previous stages, this is also the phase where teens begin to use by themselves often isolating themselves in their room or other quiet locations where they are likely to be left alone.

It is also during this stage that teens begin using as a means of escape. They are no longer using due to their curiosity, or concern over their social image. Rather, they are beginning to abuse their drug of choice as a means of self-medicating negative emotions, or as a means of escaping a reality they no longer enjoy or what to be apart of.

Stage 4: Increasingly Risky Substance-Usage - 'Risky Business'

Unlike the previous stages, where drug-abusing teens are more careful about hiding their surreptitious goings-on, it is during this phase that their using habits become more reckless.

An example of this risky behavior would be if a teen decided to drive drunk - something experimenting teens typically shy away from due to their fear of getting caught and getting in trouble with parents and other authority figures.

This phase is significant as it is the stage whereupon teens become highly at-risk of endangering themselves or others due to their increasingly brash decision-making and using habits. 

Stage 5: Dependence - 'Need my fix'

This stage is significant as it signifies one's 'need' to use a harmful substance. It is also during this phase where a teen develops an increasing tolerance for their drug of choice wherein they require more of said drug in order to achieve their desired effects.

Additionally, it is during this stage that a teen will most likely experience physical symptoms - withdrawals when abstaining from using - and psychological dependence - experiencing drug cravings - for the first time.

Stage 6: Substance Abuse Disorder - 'I Don't Have a Problem!'

This final stage signifies that a teen has been through the previous five phases and finally meets the criteria for having a legitimate substance use disorder.

It is during this final stage where teens develop serious issues such as:

  • Not being able to 'live' without their drug of choice
  • Are seemingly unable to control their use of the drug
  • Continue abusing a harmful substance in spite of its apparent detrimental physical and psychological symptoms
  • Lie about or understate their overall usage of said substance
  • Give up activities and responsibilities in lieu of using
    Are unable to admit or even recognize they have a problem with using that has become unmanageable