The 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that over 2 million young people ages 12-17 used illegal drugs within 30 days of being interviewed. For parents, it is important to remember that the most common substances that this age group uses may be found in your home. Think about the variety of medications that can be obtained, prescribed, leftover or hanging around well after they are even needed.
Opioids, depressants, stimulants (medications used for ADHD) and over the counter cough and cold medications can all be abused by your teens. In addition, common household products that can be inhaled and yes even cigarettes, chewing tobacco, e-cigarettes, and alcohol are used by this age group. It is important to mention that pre-teens and teenagers ages (12-17) are at a higher risk of using or trying substances as they are in an experimental period.
Parents should understand that in order to prevent and decrease the use of substances, any child under the age of 18 is at risk and can be at risk for a substance use disorder. A national survey revealed that many children in 8th through 12th grades have consumed alcohol and some admitted that they have also used marijuana. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), reported that there are drug related deaths on an average of every 13 minutes. This includes all age groups in the U.S. and accidental deaths related to overdose and poisonings from drugs.
Realistically, in order to help decrease and prevent young people from using substances, it is important to know what may make a child at risk. It does not matter where you live, what school your child attends, how much money you make or don’t make, your child may be at risk if there is:
- Academic struggles and poor grades
- Diagnosed or undiagnosed learning disorders
- Use, misuse or abuse of substances by family members
- Poor social interactions, being bullied including cyberbullying
- Conflictual family interactions
- Abuse or neglect
- Undiagnosed mental health disorders
- Engagement with peers who experiment, use or misuse substances
Statistics indicate that creating protective factors around children can help to counteract the potential risks of substance use.
- Initiate honest, open, fact-based and age-appropriate communication about substance use, misuse, and possible disorders.
- Ensure that children feel safe and know they have an ally with trusting adults in their lives.
- Model safe and moderate consumption of alcohol and legal substances.
- Maintain a healthy involvement in social, school, social media and extracurricular activities of children.
- Be an aware parent. Locate the facts and reliable information about drugs and children.
- Monitor the amount of time children spend alone, with peers and on social media.
- Know the risks, signs, and symptoms of substance use and take immediate action.
- Talk openly about substance use and potential consequences.
- Understand medications your child is prescribed especially as related to pain and behavioral health medications.
- Keep medications safe and dispose of them properly. (In most states there are pharmacy take-back programs, recommendations, and regulations around disposal of unused medications)
- Ensure your child has a yearly physical that includes anticipatory guidance. This is a discussion between the health care provider, child, and parent devised to assess and evaluate key public health prevention topics including substance use, based on the child’s age.
Signs and Symptoms
Identify don’t shy away from the possible warning signs of use, misuse or substance use disorders. It is easy to miss even the most obvious signs and symptoms. As parents we don’t believe our child could be at risk, we assume they know the harmful impacts and would not succumb to “peer pressure” or the “temptation” in general. Parents may interpret the changes seen as being “normal” for growing and pre and pubescent children. Parents may become defensive or in denial about signs and symptoms. Admitting a concern may exist may create feelings of guilt or fear of being judged, shunned or blamed. These excuses will not keep our children safe. Act if you notice:
- Subtle nuances of change in behavior
- Looking or acting “high”
- Frequently anger or lashing out
- Encounter legal troubles
- Withdrawing from family activities
- Change in sleep and wake patterns
- A change in friends, hanging out with “totally” different peer group
- Stealing money from family members
- Declining grades and “ditching” school
- Lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities
- Poor hygiene
- Appetite changes
- Unkept personal appearance
- Use of key phrases, codes or words in their social media, phone texts, conversations that reference common substances
KEY Actions if you suspect or are suspicious your child may be using drugs
There is no rule that a parent cannot inspect a child’s phone, look in bedroom closets and drawers. If your child was hanging by their fingernails at the top of a building, wouldn’t you do anything to save them? Don’t ignore, explore. It is important to build trust and when necessary, validate. This is not to advocate for a confrontation with the child or use any of the “scared straight” tactics as that has not proven to be a universal best practice method. Look at behaviors and actions. Listen to conversations, phone calls, and clues. Know the facts, signs, and symptoms. Do something about it:
- Call 911 or poison control if unresponsive, an overdose is indicated or just not “acting right.”
- Initiate an appointment to a licensed health care provider who can perform a screening, brief intervention, and refer to treatment (SBIRT)
- Reach out for help and support. There are various supports and treatment options
- In some cases, group or personalized help may be required.
- Reach out to family, friends and your faith-based group where you can illicit non-judgmental support and help.
- Get help to understand and ensure your child understands that SUD is not a character flaw or issue, it is a disease.
- Early Intervention is key and if your child is in recovery, especially from opioids or heroin talk to your health care provider or pharmacist about naloxone.
If parents/guardians discover that their child is using, misusing or has a substance disorder take comfort in knowing that there are others who are going through what you are and are eager to support and listen. As is a part of many acute or chronic health disorders, having the right information, key players who can assist, time and patience is key to survival and recovery.
Take advantage of substance use prevention and recovery help available in most communities and states.