Although substance use, in moderation, is developmentally normal in adolescence, drug and alcohol use can move quickly from experimental use to risky use or even dependence. Here are some generally accepted warning signs: marked changes in habits including declines in school participation and grades, changes in sleeping and eating patterns, and changes in friendships. These indicators are the same for the beginning of substance abuse as they are for depression, though substance abuse and depression are often related. This is a reminder that while youth are trying on their new wings, they are also experiencing the loss of an old family nest. As much as they want to make independent decisions about smoking and drinking, they still want their lunch made for them and, in general, their daily needs met. They want autonomy, then, but without the responsibilities that accompany adult life.
Autonomy from family heightens the need to belong to some group outside the family. Finding a place "to hang out" with a group, a group where an adolescent feels he or she belongs, is critical for developing an independent identity. It is critical also for developing new ways of social participation, cooperation, collaboration, and taking responsibility. Informal peer groups, as well as activity groups such as sports teams, choirs, rock bands, rap groups, drama groups, and scouts, are typical forms of groups in which adolescents can find a new home. Finding a place where one belongs can mean a church/synagogue/mosque/temple youth group or it can mean a smoking, drinking, drug-using peer group.
Critical to a sense of belonging is feeling wanted and known for who you are. Equally critical is finding a place where adolescents can be their true selves- pimples, sagging pants, crazy thoughts, shaved head, bad grades (or good grades), dreams, doubts, hopes- that is, where adolescents can know that they will be accepted and included even when they are known. Too often, traditional religious institutions create an atmosphere where adolescents who are trying on alternative identities or who cannot seem to get their acts together feel put down, (mis)judged, and unknown so that they come to feel unwelcome. Too often, drugusing hang-outs provide the only places where adolescents do feel welcome.
A sense of belonging also means being able to contribute and participate by making the group happen in some way, by being a necessary part of the team, and by making the team one's own. If adolescents can provide the drinks, roll the joints, play the music, or provide the pot to smoke, then they are making a contribution to the group, however dysfunctional this contribution may be.
However, so too can adolescents find homes and sense of their contribution when they join faith-based, or spiritually based groups-especially when the leaders of these groups make themselves available, when they are emotionally open, and when they listen. Such religious and spiritually based groups are numerous and effective, especially in low-income and ethnic minority communities.
THE MEANING OF LIFE
For many young people, adolescence is a quest for meaning. The quest can be expressed in questions such as "How fast can I drive without going off the road? How drunk can I get and still drive home? How many hours can I study without sleeping? and How thin can I get?" However, the quest can also be expressed while lying beneath a tree and looking up at the heavens, in questions such as "Is there anything up there? Is all this random? Where did we come from? Where am I going? Is anybody up there in charge? What do you see when you look at the sky? Is it the same thing that I see? How do you know what's true? How do you know what's right?" And, "What's the purpose of life, anyway?"