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How you can protect your teen from substance abuse?

July 28, 2017

Over the last few years there has been an increase in the number of teens who are not only experimenting with drugs, but who have developed an addiction problem. According to statistics, about 2 million children between the ages of 12 and 17 are in need of treatment every year. Most teens do not experiment with drugs with the intention to become addicted to them. In fact, most teens experiment with drugs because of curiosity, peer pressure, or to feel good and have a good time. Unfortunately, many continue and many die because of it. As caregivers, it can be challenging to know what to do because addiction is brooded in secrecy and we might not find out until the substance use has become a substance abuse problem.

According to statistics, about 2 million children between the ages of 12 and 17 are in need of treatment every year.

Understand why teens might use and abuse substances

As mentioned above, the top reasons children use drugs is because they are curious, they are pressured, or they want to feel good. However, the reasons they continue to use them, even after it no longer feels as good are not just related to the children themselves.

Here are some additional reasons substance abuse is happening in our children today:

  • Caregivers do it, too. Many caregivers use the “do as I say not as I do” approach when raising their children. Many children begin to use their caregiver’s drugs, whether it’s alcohol, cigarettes or medication. It is important to store medications in a place where children and teens cannot access them.
  • Caregivers take the wrong approach. What comes to mind if I say that I have a child who is hyperactive, can’t concentrate, and is not doing well in school? More than likely you will think this child has “ADHD” (Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder). This and other diagnostic labels have become part of the common lexicon used to pathologize a behavior that might be due to other factors. These behaviors could stem from exposure to domestic abuse, being bullied through social media, or not having proper nutrition and/or sleep routines. However, many caregivers and even professionals opt for medications to treat the “ADHD,” thus reinforcing the idea that a drug - a pill - can make things better.
  • We’re looking for a quick fix. This is related to my last point in that children begin to see drugs as the answer to their problems. To make matters worse, we are living in a society where people usually don’t like to wait or work hard to obtain results.  Just look at the number of commercials you see about a drug that promises to help you lose weight “fast.” As a society, we want fast food, fast internet, fast responses to our texts and posts, etc. This mindset creates the expectation that our sadness or anxiety should be gone fast and when it isn’t, we may be tempted to think that alcohol and other drugs can do the trick - and fast.
  • Counseling is still stigmatized. People still think that counseling is for those who “are crazy” or have “big problems.” Counseling is often seen as the last resort when nothing else works. Unfortunately, many doctors are only prescribing medications without making referrals to a counselor, even though we know that for many issues, counseling or a combination of counseling and medication yield the best results. Often people turn to substances because they have thoughts, feelings or struggles that they don’t know how to handle so instead they choose to escape through the use of mind-altering substances. Counseling to help them work through their issues and feelings in a healthy way can eliminate the need to escape from their problems by abusing drugs or alcohol.
The top reasons children use drugs is because they are curious, they are pressured, or they want to feel good.

When I share these ideas with caregivers, I often get a defensive response because it may seem as if I’m partially blaming the caregivers for their children’s choices. What I often say is that it’s not about blaming but understanding that substance abuse in teens is a systemic problem. We have to look at the whole picture and not just point the finger and make it all about the child.

It is not uncommon for caregivers to take their children to counseling with the expectation that the child will be changed, even if the caregivers or environment continues to be unhealthy. Children are often a reflection of their environment. Therefore, having a collaborative approach and mindset set the tone for children to ask and accept help.

Know the signs of substance abuse in teens

Many of the following signs can mimic other issues. Therefore, the most important thing to remember is that these signs are there for us to explore further:

  • Changing friends
  • Changing how they dress, talk, or music they listen to
  • Dropping grades
  • Skipping classes.
  • Isolation
  • Locking their bedroom door
  • Getting very upset if you're "snooping" around in their room
  • They have two phones
  • Sudden changes in sleep and/or appetite
  • Lack of proper hygiene
  • Stealing

What can we do to help?

Finding out that your child has tried drugs or has developed a drug problem can be devastating. Our reactions can range from anger to sadness and disappointment. We might want to punish the children severely and take away everything so “they learn their lesson.” Although this might work for some children, others will find a way around it. Our approach should not be punitive but rather supportive.

Here are some ideas:

  • Monitor who their friends are. Get involved. Children who begin experimenting and then create a habit of using drugs will begin to hang out with kids who are doing the same thing. Always listen to your instinct when it comes to the new group of friends. Get to know them and get to know their families. Again, children are a reflection of their environment so to get a good picture of who they are, get to know their environment.
  • Expose them to good role models. This is particularly important if they have been exposed to domestic abuse. Provide them with people they can count on so you don’t feel that it is all up to you to raise your children. There are mentorship programs if there are no good models available. Children often think that everyone is doing drugs so having role models that counteract this view can make a big difference.
  • Provide other outlets. Children are being raised by electronic devices, TV, computers, tablets, phones. Children need to be involved in sports, camps, clubs, and extracurricular activities.  
  • Set an example. You can’t lecture your child about drug use while you’re smoking a cigarette or holding a beer. You might justify it as “I’m an adult and they are not.” This approach does not work, especially if your teen has already developed a substance abuse problem.
  • Do not encourage it. I’ve heard so many parents say “if they’re going to do it, I’d rather them do it in my home and under my supervision.” When I challenge this view, I often hear “they’re going to do it anyway,” or “I did it too and I turned out fine,” or “I want them to have the experience so they can grow out of it.” The reality is that the younger they are when they start using the more likely they are to develop a serious problem with addiction. Having this parenting approach will eventually backfire because you will not have enough authority to guide your child. Children do not need you to be their friend, they need you to be a friendly parent.
  • Have clear, non-negotiable boundaries and expectations. Be consistent and everyone in a caregiving role has to be on the same page otherwise the child will manipulate the situation and get away with their behavior.
  • Ask questions directly and specifically; don't just ask "are you using drugs?" because they might not consider marijuana, cigarettes, alcohol, or pills a drug since they are legal or commonly used.
  • Drug test them if you suspect. You can get these drug tests at a pharmacy. Get the ones that have different panels for different drugs. Make sure you child does not expect a drug test otherwise they might “prepare” themselves. Check the temperature of the urine (it has to be warm) as individuals can provide diluted urine. Ask them not to run the water or wash their hands until after you test it.
  • Seek help from a professional. If your first option is to take your child to a general physician or pediatrician, make sure you also obtain a referral to a counselor. I think we often place doctors on this pedestal, believing that they have the answers for all problems. In reality, general physicians typically handle physical problems, not mental or emotional ones. Psychiatrists are physicians trained in mental and emotional problems. However, many psychiatrists do not do counseling and it’s up to us, the caregivers to make sure we don’t substitute one drug for another.

Despite our best efforts, children can still become exposed to drugs, whether it happens at school or through social media. It can be challenging to navigate this with our children but it is a reality we cannot ignore or assume that they know better.

For more information, visit the National Institutes of Health for specific advice for teens and parents on substance abuse.