Every family eventually faces a shift as children enter the realm of adolescence and young adulthood. Sons and daughters who once heeded guidance are immersed in a world of peer pressure, stressful competition and conflicting messages. For parents:
- The good news is that strong parent-child bonds are solid foundations for continuing family connectedness.
- The more challenging reality is that even under the most loving and caring conditions, some teens – and tweens – still succumb to the lures of wanting to belong, escapism or exploration through substance abuse.
The truth is that anyone – absolutely anyone – can become addicted to drugs. Meanwhile, the task is to recognize the danger and immediately acknowledge signs and symptoms of substance abuse for what they are – your teen’s need for help.
Identifying Substances of Abuse
Substance abuse often starts with subtle behaviors involving gateway drugs:
- Alcohol and tobacco are age-limited, adult-only substances that push boundaries.
- Marijuana, with its debatable legality, is increasingly proving both extremely attractive and destructive to young people.
- Inhalants are readily available in common household products.
- Prescription medicines issued for your teen or family members introduce easy access to mind-altering substances.
Gateway substances lower inhibitions, cloud judgment and carry teens across a forbidden threshold where boundaries between drugs quickly begin to blur.
Beginning Younger and Expanding Drug Choices
Children face adult situations at startlingly early ages. Children ages 12 to 14 and those 15 to 17 are transiting critical stages with direct links to long-term dependence, abuse and addiction. Our teens view drugs as readily available, and while alcohol, tobacco and marijuana head the most-favored list:
- Young teens also tend to choose inhalants like those found in adhesives, household cleaners or even pens.
- Teens in the later age group also gravitate to synthetic marijuana, stimulants like Adderall, and painkillers like Vicodin and OxyContin.
So, with all the trends, choices and variations, how does a parent know what to look for?
Identifying the Signs and Symptoms
Despite differences among teens’ drugs of choice, many signs and symptoms of substance abuse are common to all. While your teen may attempt to explain some of them away, if you know what to look for, you’ll realize what you’re actually seeing.
- Leaders Versus Followers. In short, how susceptible is your teen to peer pressure? Researchers exploring that question for teens found that follower personalities were more likely to engage in substance abuse and other risky behaviors.
- Peer Group Behavior. People naturally align themselves with others who are similar. Pay attention to who is in your teen’s peer group and what they do. Not only do teens conform, but other teens tend to accept only those who share their interests.
- Change in Friends. Sudden shifts in friends can be especially significant. Splits between former friends introduce instability and social vulnerabilities, and new friends may have radically different values.
- Withdrawal From Family. While some teens become more reserved as they begin fashioning an adult identity, behaviors like isolating themselves in a bedroom, skipping family meals and special occasions, refusing family vacations and avoiding contact with other family members are all causes for concern.
- Disregard of Rules and Conventions. Often viewed as teenage rebellion, when a teen flaunts curfews, skips school, ignores homework assignments, lies or even refuses to participate in civil conversation, look deeper. Teachers may contact you expressing concern, or your teen may have a run-in with law enforcement.
- Changes in Habits. Your teen may start dressing differently, alter schedules, drop out of extracurricular activities, frequent new places, disappear for hours or suddenly exchange previous interests for less constructive ones.
- Changes in Temperament. Secretiveness, moodiness, depression, constant fatigue, disinhibition, explosive reactions or even violent behaviors can result from a drug’s initial effects, enduring aftereffects or temporary withdrawal.
- Disappearing Resources. Your teen may repeatedly ask for cash for supposed school activities or steal money from family members. Items may disappear, sold or pawned for cash, not only from your own home but from anywhere the teen has access. Prescription medicines or alcohol may vanish, either consumed or sold to buy the teen’s substance of choice.
- Changes in Appearance. A teen’s physical appearance speaks volumes about what is happening in his or her life. Eyes that are bloodshot, glassy, or have widely dilated or pin-point pupils all correlate to substance abuse. Your teen may suddenly lose or gain weight or neglect hygiene. Since some drugs cause itching or crawling sensations, users will pick at their skin and hair. Teens who have progressed to injectable drugs may hide needle tracks under long sleeves despite summer temperatures.
- Culture of Drug Paraphernalia. Drug use comes with a host of accessories. Small baggies and paper bindles, lighters, tin foil, short straws, glass pipes, vials, bongs, balloons and needles are some of the most obvious, but teens can be creative. For alcohol, teens may have shot glasses and hidden flasks, a not uncommon secret gift between teen friends.
Following Up on Signs and Symptoms of Substance Abuse
Teens have more access than ever to information, with social media and electronic devices altering the parenting landscape. Your teens know more about the alcohol and drug scenes in their schools and neighborhoods than you do, and most are quite savvy about wiping their text messages and covering their social trails.
As a parent, your best option is to show interest in the challenges your teen faces by talking with them, hearing what they say and giving them the support they need to make good decisions. If you suspect your teen is involved in substance abuse, intervene. Intervene early and get help. You can’t undo what they’ve already done, but you might be able to impact what they’ll do next.