Does Exposure to Substance Use Promote Antisocial Behavior in Teenagers?

As parents know very well, most teenage children sometimes exhibit signs of antisocial behavior. Within limits, this type of behavior is an expected part of the normal process of growing up. However, if it appears frequently or in excessive amounts, antisocial behavior may point to the presence of dangerous changes in mental health. In some cases, highly antisocial children grow up to be dysfunctionally antisocial adults. Mental health specialists know that children who repeatedly witness excessive drug or alcohol use often have increased long-term chances of developing a broad range of behavioral problems. Current evidence now indicates that teenagers who see other people consuming drugs or alcohol also have highly increased chances of experiencing more-or-less immediate spikes in their antisocial tendencies.

Antisocial Behavior in Teens and Younger Children

The term antisocial behavior is used to describe a broad range of socially harmful actions, including such things as lying, stealing, cheating, physical aggression toward others and the destruction of property. During childhood and adolescence, most people occasionally engage in this type of behavior. Your child typically has increased chances of acting antisocially during moments of high stress, when he or she reaches the limits of the developing brain’s healthy coping mechanisms. While this “normal” antisocial behavior may cause serious problems in any given situation, it does not usually develop into a significant, ongoing pattern.

A child who develops a repeated pattern of clearly antisocial behavior has a substantially reduced chance of interacting well with others or experiencing a sense of personal well-being. At the extreme, a highly antisocial child may experience problems serious enough to merit an official mental health diagnosis. Under current guidelines, doctors can diagnose either of two antisocial conditions in a child: oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder. (A third condition, antisocial personality disorder, is only officially diagnosed in people age 18 or older.)

Long-Term Behavioral Effects of Witnessing Excessive Substance Use

If your child is repeatedly exposed to environments where excessive substance intake occurs, he or she has increased chances of eventually developing significant behavioral problems. Several factors help explain this link. For example, substance-heavy social and home environments commonly lack the stability and reliability that children need to feel mentally/emotionally secure. Children in substance-heavy environments also have increased chances of experiencing or witnessing some sort of physical or sexual assault. In addition, a child repeatedly exposed to other people involved in excessive drug or alcohol use may grow up thinking that dysfunctional substance intake is an acceptable social norm.

Short-Term Antisocial Effects of Witnessing Excessive Substance Use

In a study published in December 2015 in the journal Development and Psychopathology, researchers from two American universities looked at what happens to the short-term behavior of teenagers who witness other people consuming alcohol or taking drugs. In the past, scientists had no good way of obtaining such immediate behavioral feedback. However, in this particular project, the researchers used cell phone surveys of 151 teens to gain the information they sought. All of the participants were age 11 to age 15 and filled out surveys on their cell phones three times daily for just over a month. In each survey, the participating teens reported any exposure to other people consuming drugs or alcohol. Each teen was also asked to report same-day involvement in antisocial behaviors such as hitting another person, stealing from another person or destroying another person’s property.

The researchers found that teenagers of both sexes have significantly increased chances of committing an antisocial act on the same day that they witness someone taking drugs or consuming alcohol. This finding applies to all of the teens enrolled in the study. However, by far, the greatest chances of acting antisocially after witnessing substance use appear in teenagers with a specific genetic variation that makes people more prone to restlessness.

Compared to a teenager who doesn’t witness substance use, a teen without the genetic mutation that sees someone consuming drugs or alcohol is twice as likely to act antisocially that same day. In a teenager with the mutation, the odds of acting antisocially after witnessing substance use increase to four times as likely.

Offsetting the Risk

Fortunately, even if your teenager frequently witnesses other people in the act of using drugs or alcohol, several factors can potentially offset the risks for antisocial behavior and other types of behavioral problems. These factors include the development of good social skills, the ability to discuss problems openly with at least one parent, involvement in organizations that don’t tolerate members who act antisocially and an active social life with friends and family members who do not drink in excessive amounts or use drugs at all. Ongoing substance use in adolescence can itself be viewed as a form of antisocial behavior. For this reason, preventive measures typically work best when taken before your teenage son or daughter begins even experimental consumption of alcohol or drugs. It is important to note that if you have untreated substance abuse problems, your daily example may steeply increase the odds that your teen will exhibit antisocial tendencies.