The Holidays and the New Year: An Opportunity To Discuss Substance Use With Teens And Young Adults

Holidays and the New Year can be a time for merriment and cheer, but any time family and friends are expected to gather and participate in events together the resulting emotions and stress can be overwhelming. Add in the myriad of complications and uncertainties related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and this can be a potentially perilous time of year – especially, if your go-to coping mechanism is self-medicating. Adolescents face a greater risk than adults of developing drug or alcohol use problems in general. Young people especially are at risk this time of year, as they face more temptations amplified by an environment of indulgence.

Some specific reasons why young people may be especially susceptible to addiction during the holidays and into the New Year include:

  • Being separated from friends they would otherwise interact with in school, which can produce feelings of loneliness and depression.
  •  Stress and anxiety associated with the challenges of virtual classes, homework, and tests.
  • Less access to mental health resources and services.
  •  Increased access or exposure to drugs or alcohol if family members keep alcohol in the house or prescription drugs in their medicine cabinets.
  • Increased access or exposure to drugs or alcohol at social gatherings.

It can be difficult to differentiate between normal teenage angst and a developing substance abuse problem. As family and friends spend time together this holiday, it is the ideal time to watch out for warning signs. Here are some signs that could indicate a serious problem with addiction during the holidays:

  • They appear sick or unwell- red-rimmed or bloodshot eyes, pale, significant fluctuations in weight over a short amount of time.
  • They show signs of intoxication- slurred speech, difficulties keeping their balance.
  • They go through noticeable mood swings- going from being “the life of the party,” to picking a fight or sitting alone in a corner looking despondent.
  • They disappear and reappear without explanation.

Even if there are no warning signs, the holidays and the New Year present an opportunity to discuss substance use with teens and young adults as a means of prevention. People are most likely to begin abusing drugs—including tobacco, alcohol, and illegal and prescription drugs— during adolescence between the ages of 12 and 17. Stress without planned coping mechanisms combined with the environment of indulgence and excess of the holidays can lead young people to make decisions with long lasting impact. During the holiday activities, opportunities will present themselves to engage a teen or young adult in conversations about the impact of the decisions they will make. There are ways of broaching the topic of substance use in a way that resonates with them and can open up a discussion about the health and safety issues around the use of opioids and stimulants. Opportunities such as:

• Discussions about their successes and experiences in school, both what they have enjoyed and what has proved challenging.
• Discussions about news stories they may have heard about, such as recent alcohol or drug related deaths.
• If they are on break from college, discussions about their experiences negative or positive at social gatherings.

It is important to be open, patient, and non-judgmental. Let your young adults know that you want them to have a long, happy, and successful life, and that using heroin or misusing prescription opioids could permanently derail their dreams and plans for the future. Substance use disorders in adolescence affect key developmental and social changes and interfere with normal brain maturation resulting in long lasting effects. Family conversations about the consequences and dangers of misusing prescription opioids or other drugs will help our teens and young adults make healthy choices for many more holidays and New Years to come.

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Harding, F. M. (2021, September 7). This holiday season, talk to your young adult about the #1 U.S. health crisis: Opioids. This Holiday Season, Talk to Your Young Adult about the #1 U.S. Health Crisis: Opioids | Get Smart About Drugs. Retrieved November 23, 2021, from

NIDA. 2020, June 2. Principles of Adolescent Substance Use Disorder Treatment. Retrieved from on 2021, November 23

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2011). Identifying mental health and substance use problems of children and adolescents: A guide for child-serving organizations (HHS Publication No. SMA 12-4670). Rockville, MD: Author.