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Identifying Signs of Teen Substance Abuse

Written By: Gateway, , Prevention

It’s not unusual for families to think that it couldn’t happen to them – not their kids and not in their family. Most caregivers do their absolute best when it comes to raising their children while keeping them safe and informed and teaching them about the dangers of smoking, drinking and drug use when they deem the time is right. However, addiction and substance abuse know no boundaries.

Children who grow up in higher income families, attend the best schools, play sports, go to church, etc. are just as much at risk as those who grow up in lower socioeconomic classes. Of course, there are factors that may increase the chance that these adolescents use drugs or alcohol, including use within the family, easy access to substances, physical or emotional abuse and even their genetic vulnerability.

According to figures published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, almost 70 percent of all high school seniors have tried alcohol, 50 percent have tried illegal drugs, 40 percent have tried smoking cigarettes and more than 20 percent have used prescription drugs for recreational purposes. The reasons are many and vary widely, such as peer pressure, attempting to escape difficult emotions that they’ve not yet learned to process, the desire for better performance in school and sports or simply searching for new experiences as is normal for a developing adolescent. A teen experimenting with substances does not necessarily mean they will develop an addiction, but it can be part of a pattern of risky behavior.

Should your child use substances repeatedly, there can be serious consequences such as:

  • School failure
  • Problems with family and other relationships
  • Loss of interest in normal healthy activities
  • Impaired memory
  • Increased risk of contracting an infectious disease like HIV or hepatitis C via risky sexual behavior or sharing contaminated injection equipment
  • Mental health problems – including substance use disorders of varying severity
  • The very real risk of overdose death

In today’s fast-paced world of endless sporting events, both parents working, countless functions and obligations, it can be very easy to miss the warning signs, not to mention the fact that some signs are easily written off as “normal teenage behavior.” Some of the signs to watch for include:

  • Frequently missing curfew
  • Inability to explain where their money is being spent
  • Drastic changes in appetite and/or sleep patterns
  • Changes in mood or personality
  • Poor hygiene
  • Dramatic changes in weight
  • Depression
  • Lethargy
  • Problems at work or school

And if you do detect signs of drug or alcohol use, what now? It’s time for a face-to-face conversation, but there are some things you need to do first.

Talk to your spouse, do your research, be prepared and remain calm. It’s easy to come across as angry and confrontational when what you really are is hurt, upset, worried and scared. If the conversation is more like an attack, you are probably going to be met with a lot of resistance, and it will go nowhere.

Try to be understanding. If you have had a history of use, it’s OK to discuss it with them. Just don’t glamorize it. Share with them what you went through and learned from it.

Remember, there is help available. You can start with your family doctor or outpatient facilities, such as Gateway to Prevention and Recovery.

Set realistic goals and spell out the rules and consequences.

Whatever you do, do not ignore the problem hoping it will go away. The sooner you address this issue, the more likely you are to have a positive outcome.

Troy Becker is employed by Gateway to Prevention and Recovery and is a graduate of St. Gregory’s University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in social science and Master of Arts in counseling psychology. Troy is also furthering his studies at Mid-America Christian University.

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