Girls Abusing Substances at Rates Sometimes Higher than Boys

Research has shown boys have traditionally engaged in more drug and alcohol abuse than girls. But that’s starting to change. Today more girls are abusing prescription drugs than boys and more girls are drinking than ever before, and it can be a struggle knowing if a teen girl has a substance abuse problem.

In 2004 the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that a million and a half teenage girls were drinking alcohol, 675,000 were smoking marijuana and 730,000 were smoking cigarettes.  But one of the biggest areas of disparity between boys and girls in terms of drug use has to do with prescription medications.

By 2007, one out of every 10 teen girls had used prescription medications for non-medical reasons at least once during that year. That figure compared to one out of every 13 teenage boys who had misused prescription drugs that same year. Around 55 percent of visits made to the hospital emergency room because of prescription drug abuse were made by girls compared to only 35 percent of visits for use of illicit street drugs.

Part of the reason girls tend to abuse alcohol and prescription drugs at higher rates than boys has to do with what drives substance abuse in boys and girls. For teenage boys, abuse of substances is largely driven by the thrill and excitement of risky behavior and a desire to get high. By contrast, girls tend to abuse drugs and alcohol in order to cope with anxiety and stress, to get attention from an older boy, to boost self-confidence or to manage weight issues.

Figures in 2009 confirmed that girls continue to have more substance problems than ever before, including more than boys. And yet, most people are surprised to learn that girls lead the pack in prescription drug and alcohol abuse. This is probably because girls rarely garner attention, whereas boys who abuse drugs and alcohol tend to act out with fights, problems at school and with the police.

This means that it is easier for teenage girls to hide their substance abuse problem from parents and other adults. And the longer a girl continues with her substance abuse the more likely it becomes that she will wind up clinically depressed as well. Girls face a higher risk of depression than boys to begin with, but abusing substances raises that risk two and a half times.

Young girls who abuse prescription drugs and alcohol do not only face a higher chance of becoming depressed, they also face other risks like contracting a sexually transmitted illness or having an unplanned pregnancy. Drug and alcohol abuse lasts longer for girls than for boys before someone intervenes and gets them help. Because adults around young girls don’t see more obvious signs of substance use, they often do not realize that these teens need help.

For this reason, parents of teenage girls need to be open to less obvious signs of a substance abuse problem. These signs do not necessarily mean that a girl is abusing drugs, but it could point to a substance use problem or at least to deepening depression:

If a parent notices several of these symptoms in their daughter, it is at least time to step in with a serious conversation and may be time to have her screened by a physician. Talks about the extra risks girls run when they drink to the point of intoxication are important. Lastly, a parent’s involvement in their daughter’s life along with their own positive life example is two of the strongest deterrents to a girl developing a substance problem in the first place.