When Experimenting With Drugs and Alcohol Becomes a Problem

Alcohol and drug experimentation, particularly in adolescence and young adulthood is nothing new. According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, nearly 62% of teens have abused alcohol by the time they finish high school. These numbers surely increase as teenagers go to college, with peers of legal age able to buy alcohol and marijuana (in some states) and nearly no parental oversight. The tremendous peer pressure to party and unwind at a young age plays a role in experimentation. Many young people grow past the peer pressure and learn their limits regarding drug and alcohol use, but others do not. The experimentation stage may lead your child to discover drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism, setting them up for an increased risk of long-term dependence and substance abuse. But how can you tell the difference between your child simply figuring things out or losing themselves to drug addiction? Here’s what you should know:

Experimentation vs. Dependence

During the experimentation phase, drinking or using other drugs is usually centered around a specific event. In these situations, being at the social event is what gives young adults access to the substance. Typically, this may start with smoking cigarettes and drinking at parties or trying prescription medications. In younger kids, this might be trying alcohol at a sleepover. In cases where there is easy access to alcohol or other drugs, a child may pick it up out of curiosity, since they are familiar with how the substances and drugs seem to affect the adults around them in the home.

How Experimentation Progresses

After they start experimenting and move on from the first stage, exposure to the substance becomes more frequent. The social events become something to look forward to, specifically because of the lax social attitudes and easy access to drugs. Biologically, craving for drugs doesn’t exist yet, but the desire to have a good time and the pleasurable effects associated with them does.

Experimentation and recreational or occasional drug use are often lumped together as the period of time where substance use, particularly in a young person, is not seen as a problem. However, they have some differences. One of the more significant differences between experimentation and recreational or occasional drug use is the amount of planning and knowledge around each instance of substance use. During experimental teen drug use, encountering the substance is somewhat of a crime of opportunity. That is, if a drink or illicit drug presents itself, why not take the chance and indulge? There is a general awareness of what happens when the drug is used and how to use it, but no negative, deterring consequences have been experienced yet.

Becoming Familiar With Drugs and Alcohol

During recreational or occasional use, the person has a deeper understanding and interaction with drugs or alcohol. They make the conscious choice to plan out how they will obtain the substance and there is a familiarity with it. For example, teens who only drink beer provided for them at house parties are typically unaware of how to order a drink at a bar when they’re of age. If teens are only exposed to marijuana use in the form of edibles, they might not know how to smoke. Teens that get offered psychoactive substances at school, may not know how to obtain the illegal drug. There is a lack of maturity around the substances that begin to develop once the person is no longer in the experimentation phase. During the occasional or repeated use period, you might begin to see adverse experiences with substances. This is extremely common with hangovers and blackouts, but can also be seen in feeling like you “got too high” and are dealing with the negative consequences of no longer being in control of the body.

The Transition from Experimentation to Dependence

Many who experiment with drugs won’t become occasional users. Likewise, many occasional users won’t misuse drugs and escalate into dependence or begin developing a substance use disorder. However, this transition from having a manageable time with substances to becoming dependent upon them can happen quite quickly and should be monitored.

Signs and Symptoms


Craving illegal drugs or alcohol signifies an escalation in use. It doesn’t necessarily mean that a drug dependence or substance use disorder is present, but it does show that a change in behavior has occurred. Craving can be as light as a desire to have the drug to make a social event feel more fun, or it can be as loud and demanding as intense anxiety, distress, or depression when feeling distant from the substance. The intensity of craving can be an indicator of how seriously someone has gotten involved with their drug of choice.


One of the biggest warning signs that occasional, experimental use is turning into a substance use disorder is the frequency of misuse. This term refers to using drugs or alcohol in a harmful manner. Experimental users are still figuring out their limits, but problematic users of substances know their limits and go beyond them. Misuse involves a willful ignorance of the consequences associated with too much drug intake. This includes drinking with the intention of blacking out or shooting heroin with the intent to nod off. Additionally, partaking in risky behaviors and exercising poor judgment may also be an indicator of substance use disorders.

Self Medicating

Another sign that experimentation has turned into dependence is when substances are used to self-medicate as a way to relieve mental health symptoms. An anxious teen may experiment with Xanax, notice the calming effects it produces, and continue to seek it out. This may seem harmless at first, however, self-medicating with substances can quickly turn into a bigger issue. Unfortunately, many teens find a way to get their hands on Xanax and other drugs, and when used to alleviate mental health symptoms, quickly become addicted.


Tolerance means that the body has become used to metabolizing a drug, so the body requires increased quantities of the drugs to achieve the same effect. For recreational users, there is typically a long enough break between instances of drinking or getting high for the body to readjust to its natural limits. If you find that you cannot take a break, even if you would really want to, this can indicate drug dependence and the development of a substance abuse problem.


A hallmark of drug or alcohol dependence is the presence of withdrawal effects. Most recreational users will have very little or manageable withdrawal symptoms. However, as use increases, withdrawal becomes more intense. Withdrawal can take many forms, depending on the substance of choice and dependence level. For some, it might be an intense craving. In others, they may feel that they literally cannot function in their daily life without the substance. They might start to experience mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, or paranoia. The most serious type of withdrawal involves physical side effects. Muscle spasms, vomiting, diarrhea, and even seizures may happen during withdrawal.

When to Seek Help

Many addicted persons say they knew that they had a problem when drinking or using the drug stopped being fun and began causing more problems than solving any. This isn’t a clinical indicator of problematic drug use but can be a helpful way to look at it. Some other warning signs to look for include mental health struggles, the strain on personal relationships, conflicts with family members, legal problems, money issues, school or work absences, failed attempts to cut down or quit using, and spending significant amounts of time using, thinking about using, or recovering from using.


There are many treatment options available for managing a difficult relationship with drug and alcohol use. Each approach should be tailored for the individual, including medical detox and intensive mental health services if necessary. Other options include reaching out to a mental health professional, inpatient and outpatient treatment, group meetings, and sober living homes. Recovery from addiction is possible with the right help.

Get the Help You Need

Another key component to helping teens navigate the dynamic changes that occur throughout adolescence is drug education for both teens and parents. Mental illness and substance use disorders continue to be a huge problem. If teens and their parents are armed with the facts about the risk involved with substance use including drugs, alcohol, and marijuana, there is a good chance that substance use disorder can be avoided.

 At New Life House in Los Angeles, California, we help young men get sober from alcohol and other drugs, equipping them with tools to overcome addiction and maintain their sobriety. Our sober living in Los Angeles offers peer support, supervised care, behavioral therapies, and family services to kickstart your journey while fostering independence, promoting healthy behaviors, and focusing on life-skill development.

Last Updated on September 14, 2023


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