Chemical Dependency

Chemical dependency on alcohol or drugs occurs when a teen's body has come to need a certain drug to feel normal. A teen suffering from chemical dependency needs help to overcome his or her drug problem. Keep reading for more on chemical dependency.

Chemical dependency is when a teen cannot stop his or her use of drugs or alcohol despite the negative effects of drug use because of the drug’s effects on the teen’s body. It is physical dependence on the drug, where the teen's body has adapted to the presence of the drug and needs it to feel normal. Another type of addiction, psychological addiction, occurs when the teen feels like they need the drug to function, but their body is not dependent on the drug as it is in the case of chemical dependency.

There are several signs that a teen has moved from abuse or misuse of a drug to dependence on it, though some of the symptoms for abuse and dependency overlap. The chemically dependent teen:

  • Loses interest in activities that were previously enjoyable, or performance of activities suffers, such as a drop in grades
  • Withdraws from others
  • Stops caring for his or her appearance and may undergo other extreme physical changes
  • Needs larger or more frequent doses of the drug to feel normal
  • Steals or sells things to get the drug
  • Gets angry when confronted about drug use
  • Can't stop thinking about the drug and the next time he or she can use it
  • Can't stop using the drug
  • Goes through withdrawal if he or she doesn't get the drug
  • Does dangerous things while using the drug, like driving, sharing needles, or having unprotected sex

Chemical dependency increases the risk for accidental overdose, injury, and death, and also for suicide. It decreases a teen's chances for success in life.

Many different drugs can cause chemical dependency. Some of the most common are:

  • Alcohol
  • Tobacco
  • Painkillers
  • Heroin

Drugs that are not considered to create the same level of dependence as the above drugs, but can produce tolerance and addiction are:

  • Amphetamines
  • Methamphetamine
  • Cocaine
  • Caffeine

In addition to these drugs, some legal drugs with medical uses, such as some blood pressure medications, can cause chemical dependence because the body comes to rely on them, but they are not commonly abused and are not considered addictive because people don't crave them.

Risk Factors

There's no good way to know before a teen abuses drugs if he or she will develop a chemical dependency. Some drugs are more addictive than others, and some people are more susceptible to chemical dependency than others. The process of physical addiction to a drug can begin the first time a person uses the drug. Chemical dependency is considered a disease, and like all diseases, some people are more at risk than others. Some risk factors for chemical dependency include:

  • Genetics
  • Mental disorders such as depression and anxiety
  • Other family members or friends who abuse drugs
  • Beginning drug abuse early, while the brain is still developing
  • Being subject to abuse or trauma, especially when young
  • Using drugs that create a stronger high or those that are smoked or injected, which produces a more powerful rush and is more likely to lead to addiction
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Poor social skills
  • Being unsupervised frequently
  • Having access to drugs or alcohol
  • Living in poverty

Luckily there are some ways to reduce the chances of a teen developing chemical dependency, most of which focus on preventing the teen from using drugs or alcohol in the first place:

  • Talk to teens about the dangers of using drugs. If a family member has struggled with addiction, such as alcoholism or tobacco use, talk to the teen about the negative consequences of the addiction in the person’s life, such as lost jobs, broken relationships, and the high cost of addiction.
  • Teach and encourage self control. Get counseling for very aggressive teens.
  • Get help for teens who may be suffering from depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses or who have suffering from abuse or violence.
  • Have a positive family environment. Take an interest in your teens. Listen to them and tell them you love them. Spend time together, such as trying to eat at least one meal as a family.
  • Set fair rules and enforce them consistently.
  • Ask teens where they are going, who they will be with, and what they will be doing whenever they go out. Get to know their friends and friends' families if possible.
  • Find tutoring for students who are struggling academically.
  • Help students set positive goals for themselves and encourage their interests.


The treatment for chemical dependency depends on the teen and the type of drug or drugs he or she is addicted to. A doctor should supervise the teen's withdrawal from the drug, as some drugs cause potentially life threatening withdrawal symptoms, and the teen may be at increased risk for suicide. Once addicted teens have gone through detox, or gotten the drug out of their system, they will need a strong and caring support system to help them stay clean. A support group like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, SMART Recovery, and LifeRing Recovery can help teens avoid relapsing.

Once a person is addicted to a drug they are always addicted, but they can develop the self control to not use the drug and to have a successful life.


National Institute on Drug Abuse, "Drug Abuse and Addiction" [online]
MedlinePlus, "Drug Dependence" [online]
The Ohio State University Medical Center, "Substance Abuse/Chemical Dependency" [online]

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