Four Stages of Teen Substance Use/Abuse


By definition, experimentation is learning what causes what effect. Most people, even teenagers, are one or two trial learners; meaning, it only takes a couple of times of doing something to know what it’s about.

Imagine never having played ping pong and your neighbor invites you to come over to play. The first hit or two tells you the games basic objective. From there you are playing, albeit poorly, and honing your skills.

This is the same with teenage drug experimentation and represents a very small window in time. Once passed, the use phase starts.


Drug use is knowing what the drug does (more or less) and then doing it to get the effect it produces. It is important to note that experimentation-use does not represent a sky-is-falling-problem necessarily. In fact, most teens and adults stay at this stage and never progress further. However, the quandary is that we don’t know who will stop and who will progress to abuse.


Drug abuse is the stage when the effect of the substance is known (as we saw in the use stage) and found to be highly pleasurable. From there the teenager is interested in getting more of that feeling and then the frequency and amount of the drug use increases.


Provided by: Dr. Mark Falls

I received this email from my referral line:

“We have caught our daughter with marijuana a couple times. She assured us she had stopped and we just drug tested her and she tested positive. She is telling us now that there is nothing wrong with smoking it. We have addiction problems in our family.”

This email is a good example of a teen who is creeping into the abuse stage.

  • She has demonstrated she knows it: experimentation.
  • She likes it:
  • And she wants to do it more: potential

She is invested enough in her use that she justifies her continued use/abuse by minimizing concerns of harm: “there is nothing wrong with smoking it.”


Ultimately, drug addiction is marked by the inability to stop the use of the substance. By now the brain has developed a tolerance (needs more of the substance to get the same effect) to the substance. Discontinuing the use of the substance at this point causes symptoms of withdrawal (physical discomfort) which the user can most easily alleviate by using more of the substance.

This creates a self-perpetuating cycle which is the hallmark of addiction.

Note: MOST TEENS don’t experience addiction and stop somewhere in the experimentation-use stages. However, once a teen enters the abuse- addiction stages, interrupting the substance use momentum becomes more and more difficult.

For teen outpatient substance abuse treatment in Santa Rosa, the NEXT STEP program is a great place to begin evaluating whether a substance use problem exists and find support groups for your teen. Call Mark Falls, PhD, a family and addiction therapist in Santa Rosa at 707-525-9300 for an assessment.

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