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A Parent’s Guide to Teen Alcohol and Drug Abuse

Substance abuse among teens and adolescents is a serious, growing problem. Teens are at a critical moment in their lives when it comes to substance abuse. According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, 90% of adults who have an addiction started their smoking or illicit drug use before they were 18.

Not only is addiction in teens and youth detrimental to their current health and well-being, it bears a very strong relationship to overall health later in life. This guide will help identify teens who may be at risk for developing an addiction and delve into ways to get them the help they need.

Substance abuse among teens and adolescents is a serious, growing problem. Teens are at a critical moment in their lives when it comes to substance abuse. According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, 90% of adults who have an addiction started their smoking or illicit drug use before they were 18.

Not only is addiction in teens and youth detrimental to their current health and well-being, it bears a very strong relationship to overall health later in life. This guide will help identify teens who may be at risk for developing an addiction and delve into ways to get them the help they need.

Signs of Teen Drug and Alcohol Abuse

Unfortunately, it’s difficult know for sure if a teen has an addiction; however, the following is a list of warning signs that could indicate a problem. A single warning sign usually won’t confirm an addiction or substance use issue, but if there are multiple red flags, parents need to take action.

  • An unexplained change in personal relationships, such as a new group of friends or avoiding all contact with friends
  • Sudden change in eating and sleeping habits
  • An unusual decline in academic performance
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Insomnia
  • Unexplained fatigue
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Suicide attempts
  • A change in style of dress or grooming habits
  • Unintended changes in weight
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Dilated pupils
  • An unusual body odor
  • Slurred speech
  • Loss of motor coordination, including trouble walking
  • Unusual changes in personality, such as lying
  • Nausea for no reason
  • Memory problems
  • Confusion
  • Irritability
  • Drastic changes in mood
  • Newfound legal or financial problems
  • Rise in school disciplinary problems
  • Secretive behavior

Is My Child At Risk for Alcohol or Drug Abuse?

Generally speaking, no single personality trait, environmental setting or other factor will cause anyone, including a teen, to become addicted to drugs or alcohol. However, there are a variety of risk factors that correlate, or often occur with, addition. Therefore, parents, teachers and others in charge of teens should be aware of these risk factors to help stop addiction before it starts.

Addiction Risk Factors for Teens & Youths
Family History

A child’s tendency to mimic its parent’s behavior is widely recognized. This imitation is present even if the parent tells the child not to engage in a particular behavior. The exact reasons a parent’s history of addiction puts the child at higher risk is not perfectly understood, but the connection exists.

Early Experimentation

Per CASAColumbia’s study, 25% of teens who use addictive substances before turning 18 will become addicted as adults. However, if the use of addictive substances doesn’t start until the individual is 21 or older, the rate of addiction of these adults falls to just 4%.

Friends and Peers.

Teens are often introduced to drugs, alcohol and other addictive substances from their friends and acquaintances. It’s a lot easier to become addicted to drugs or alcohol if your friends approve of it, or at least don’t disapprove of what you’re doing.

LGBT Youth.

Even in today’s relatively progressive society, members of the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender community experience bullying, ostracism, ridicule and social isolation. This can then lead to low self-esteem and/or depression, both of which are risk factors for addiction.

Victims of Abuse

The National Institute on Drug Abuse states that approximately 66% of individuals seeking treatment for drug abuse also experienced physical or sexual abuse as a child.

Coexisting Mental Disorders

The National Institute on Drug Abuse recognizes a strong connection between addiction and mental disorders. In fact, roughly 60% of individuals with a substance use disorder also have another mental illness.

Access to Addictive Substances.

The easier it is for an individual to gain access to things like illicit drugs and alcohol, the more likely it is that they will experiment. This can include an access to alcohol in a parent’s liquor cabinet or close friends who deal or use drugs.

What to Do if You Suspect Your Child is Abusing Drugs or Alcohol

Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to how to handle suspicions of your child abusing drugs or alcohol. However, there are suggestions on how to approach the subject with your child, as well as ways you probably should not go about handling the situation.

How to Talk to Your Teen About Drugs & Alcohol Use

The primary purpose of talking to your child is to convey the idea that you’re concerned about their wellbeing and that you are there to help them, regardless of whether they’re taking addictive substances or not.

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DO:
  • Express your concern for their safety, future and overall wellbeing.
  • Explain the dangers of harm that come from using drugs or alcohol, especially if an addiction develops.
  • Ask them about other parts of their lives, such as school, friends, work, etc.
  • Talk to your child when they are sober, not when you suspect they are high or under the influence of an addictive substance.
  • Offer to help your child, not just deal with an addiction or to stop the substance abuse, but also to address the underlying issues that may have led to experimenting with drugs or alcohol.
  • Understand that there’s a difference between experimenting and full-blown addiction. While casual use or experimentation isn’t good either, it’s not the same as being addicted and will require a different approach to change the behavior.
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DON’T:
  • Criticize or blame the child for their substance use.
  • Make your child feel like they are a bad person because they use drugs or alcohol.
  • Lose your temper with your child.
  • Be surprised if your child denies using drugs or alcohol, even in the face of irrefutable evidence.
Do Not Wait to Seek Help

If there is no medical emergency, get professional help for your child. If your child is cooperative, one of the first places you can take them is the child’s primary care doctor or pediatrician. The doctor can help get the ball rolling by giving your child a drug test to determine exactly what they’ve been taking or using, as well as refer you to local treatment centers or doctors who can help.

If your child is not cooperative, or you’d like to go directly to a treatment provider, go to SAMHSA’s Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator which has a national helpline or a search function where you can enter an address, city or ZIP code to find help close by.

Drug & Alcohol Treatment Options for Kids & Teens

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The National Institute on Drug Abuse identifies over 14,500 specialized drug treatment facilities in the United States. Due to the chronic and invasive nature of addiction, treatments usually last an extended period of time and are almost never addressed with a single visit.

  • How Rehab Centers Address Addiction
  • Behavioral or Medication Treatments: Which Is Best?
  • Does My Child Need Inpatient or Outpatient Treatment?
  • For treatment to be effective, it must use a multi-pronged, evidence-based approach. If there is no scientific evidence to show a treatment method works, there’s less of a chance it actually will. The following are the two most common and widely accepted evidence based approaches to treating addiction.

  • The most effective treatment for an individual will likely be multi-faceted. But regardless of which treatment options are used, there are certain principles of any effective treatment, such as:

    • The rehab center recognizes the complexity of the addiction.
    • The treatment addresses the multiple problems causing the addiction, not just the actual drug use or abuse.
    • An individual being treated for addiction will also have another mental health disorder, such as depression, that requires treatment as well.
    • Even when a specific treatment option is used, it is still tailored to the unique individual.
    • The treatment must be easily accessible.
    • Detoxification by itself is unlikely to have long-term success unless partnered with other treatment methods.
    • Ideally, treatment will be voluntarily, but it can still be effective if it’s involuntary.
  • Inpatient addiction treatment programs are a full-time, 24 hour affair. The individual will reside at the treatment facility. Outpatient addiction treatment is part-time, allowing the patient to continue working, schooling or living their everyday life.

    Advantages of inpatient treatment include constant monitoring, less exposure to harmful triggers and more intense and extensive treatment. Disadvantages include cost and disruption to everyday life.

    Advantages of outpatient treatment includes lower cost, less disruption to normal living schedule, continued access to family support and the ability to transition the individual back to their normal life. Disadvantages include higher risk of relapse, possible continued exposure to addictive substances and harmful influences and the general inability for detoxification.

Behavioral Therapy

Behavioral therapy is rooted in psychological principles such as cognitive and behavioral psychology and focuses on the mental or psychological aspects of addiction. For example, the therapy will work to help an individual deal with cravings, find ways to avoid triggers and facilitate relationships which will promote a drug or alcohol free way of life.

Medication

It’s accepted that those suffering from addiction have altered brain structures and chemistries. As a result, the use of medications can be helpful for treating substance abuse problems. The medications used for treatments vary based on what’s being treated. For instance, naltrexone is used for opioid addiction and acamprosate for alcohol dependence.

Q&A with Addictions Expert Kimberly Hershenson

About Kimberly Hershenson

Kimberly Hershenson is a New York City based psychotherapist in practice at Revitalife Therapy. A summa cum laude graduate of Columbia University’s School of Social Work, Kimberly is a freelance writer and mental health expert for publications such as the NY Post, Redbook, Reader’s Digest, Bustle, Prevention, Talk Space and Romper.

  • Q. If a parent suspects their child has a substance abuse problem, what's the best way to broach the subject -- and what should they NOT say?

    A. When dealing with children with substance use issues, it’s important to promote reflection on personal consequences of drug use in the context of the goals and values of the individual. An example a parent would use with their child is asking “how would your life be different if you stopped using?” This would be followed up with “this is all your choice so where do you want to go from here?” This approach helps the child think for themselves about the positives and negatives of substance use, fosters the parent and child to talk about problems and concerns of use and then to discuss options for change together.

    Do not threaten your child or tell them to just stop their behavior. Substance use is an addiction and cannot just be stopped. It is also not the child’s fault. It is an unhealthy coping skill the child is using due to an inability to deal with life on life’s terms.

  • Q. What are the best things parents can do to help prevent substance abuse in the first place?

    A. Create an environment of openness and honesty. Set out time every night to discuss your child’s day. Ask them about the high and low points of their day. Come from a place of love rather than judgment when responding.

  • Q. How does detox work?

    A. Detox can be anywhere from a few days to a week depending on the substance used. During detox, the body will go through physical withdrawal. The exact symptoms experienced during withdrawal depend on what kind of drug has been used. Drugs such as opiates can be replaced with other drugs during detox to make the transition to sobriety easier.

    During detox, there will be access to medical care and the child may experience very strong emotions during it as their means of coping is being taken away. Often therapists are involved to help manage emotions.

  • Q. What can parents and their kids do to help prevent relapse?

    A. Make sure there is a lot of support in place whether it’s a therapist, 12 step meetings or a psychiatrist. Take recovery a day at a time, develop healthy coping skills such as meditation or deep breathing and focus on goals such as college or a career.

Q. If a parent suspects their child has a substance abuse problem, what's the best way to broach the subject -- and what should they NOT say?

A. Make sure there is a lot of support in place whether it’s a therapist, 12 step meetings or a psychiatrist. Take recovery a day at a time, develop healthy coping skills such as meditation or deep breathing and focus on goals such as college or a career.

Q. What are the best things parents can do to help prevent substance abuse in the first place?

A. Make sure there is a lot of support in place whether it’s a therapist, 12 step meetings or a psychiatrist. Take recovery a day at a time, develop healthy coping skills such as meditation or deep breathing and focus on goals such as college or a career.

Q. How does detox work?

A. Make sure there is a lot of support in place whether it’s a therapist, 12 step meetings or a psychiatrist. Take recovery a day at a time, develop healthy coping skills such as meditation or deep breathing and focus on goals such as college or a career.

Q. What can parents and their kids do to help prevent relapse?

A. Make sure there is a lot of support in place whether it’s a therapist, 12 step meetings or a psychiatrist. Take recovery a day at a time, develop healthy coping skills such as meditation or deep breathing and focus on goals such as college or a career.

Digging Deeper: FAQs About Youth Addiction & Treatment

Your child has a substance abuse problem. Now what? Here are answers to some common questions parents usually have at this point.

Helpful Resources for Youth & Teen Addiction
Helpful Resources for Youth & Teen Addiction
  • Alateen: A special group made up of teenagers who have been affected by the drinking issues of others.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Well-known for its research and policies on diseases, the CDC’s mandate covers other health issues, including addiction.
  • D.A.R.E: Started in 1983, D.A.R.E. takes a comprehensive approach to keeping kids and teens safe from a plethora of dangers, including addictive substances.
  • NALGAP: The Association of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Addiction Professionals and Their Allies: A voluntary membership organization that works to prevent and treat addictions in the LGBT community.
  • National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD): NCADD provides opportunities to reduce the harm of addiction and learn more about it.
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse: A government website that provides addiction information from a research-oriented, scientific viewpoint.
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens: An educational and informational resource on drug abuse for not only teens, but teachers and parents, too.
  • Partnership for Drug-Free Kids: A non-profit organization that works with families who have children struggling with substance abuse.
  • ProjectKnow: An online directory of information relating to common addiction issues, including where to find nearby treatment and assistance.
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): A federal agency that works to improve the overall mental health of the United States.
  • TeensHealth: A website specifically tailored to providing information on a variety of health issues and questions many teenagers face, including topics on drugs and alcohol.
  • Teen Addiction Anonymous: This online resource has the mission of empowering teens with knowledge and support on addiction issues, including the setting up of support meetings.
  • The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse: Also known as CASA, this research and policy organization aims to prevent, understand and treat addiction.
  • Youth.gov: A government website focused on helping the youth of America on a variety of issues, including addiction.