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Alcohol and Drug Treatment > Teen Treatment Program > What Every Parent Needs to Know
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what parents need to know about teen drug and alcohol addiction

FAQs: What Every Parents Needs to Know

1) Why is it important to detect early warning signs of substance use in teenagers?

Substance abuse during adolescence can have permanent consequences. The adolescent brain is still developing, particularly in the parts of the area involved in decision-making, impulse-control, judgment and risk-assessment. Substance abuse can significantly alter the structure of the brain and interfere with the development of these important brain functions, leading to more at-risk behavior throughout life.

2) What is SUD?

SUD, Substance Use Disorder, is characterized not by the quantity and frequency of substance use, but by the consequences it has on the user's career/education, friend and family relationships, and health. Because of the accessibility of drugs and alcohol to teenagers, many teenagers may experiment with these substances, and use does not necessarily lead to abuse. However, an addict is rarely able to recognize when they have crossed this line.

3) What risk factors are involved in developing an addiction?

Teenagers begin using substances for a variety of reasons. Frequently, substance use is triggered by a stressful life event, such as a divorce, moving, and the loss of a loved one. However, use is more likely to become addiction if there is a family history of abuse, or an experience of early childhood trauma.

4) What substances are commonly used by teenagers?

Alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco product use are the most common among teenagers. A 2010 Government study found that 29% of tenth graders had engaged in drinking behavior, and 30% had used marijuana in the last month. Teenagers have reported access to other substances, such as cold medications, inhalants, depressants (bariturates, benxodiazepines), stimulants (amphetamines, cocaine, methamphetamine), narcotics (Oxycontin, Vicodin, morphine, codeine), hallucinogens (LSD, mushrooms), dissociateive anesthetics (PCP, ketamine), and club drugs (ecstasy, MDMA). While the percentage of teenagers using these substances is significantly lower, this study also found that 25% of seniors in high had used an illicit drug other than marijuana in the past months.

5) What are some common warning signs of drug and alcohol abuse?

It isn't always immediately obvious when a teenager has begun to develop a drug or alcohol addiction. However, there are many common physical, behavioral, and psychological, and health-related indicators.

Some physical indicators include: bloodshot eyes, dilated/contracted pupils, deterioration of personal appearance, impaired coordination and speech, tremors, and unusual smells on breath, body and clothes (especially smoke).

Some psychological indicators include: sudden mood swings, irritability, unexplained changes in personality, lack of motivation, periods of unusual hyperactivity, and paranoia/anxiety.

Some behavioral indicators include: drop in performance and attendance at school, unexplained financial problems, unusual secretiveness, unwillingness to communicate or cooperate, loss of inhibitions, sudden change in friend group, hobbies, and hangouts, and unwillingness to discuss new friends and activities.

Some health issues include: frequent nosebleeds, runny nose not cause by allergies or cold, sores and/or spots around mouth, queasiness, vomiting, and sudden dramatic weight loss or gain.

Possession of paraphernalia may also indicate abuse of these substances. These items include: eye drops (to decrease eye reddening), matches/lighters, rolling papers, pipes, multiple pill bottles, make-shift tourniquets, needles, and mirrors (used for drugs that are snorted, will usually have powdery residue on the surface).

6) What should a parent do when they are concerned that their teen may be in trouble?

Parents need to trust their instinct. As a result of their love and concern, they will often tend to dismiss or minimize signs of alcohol or drug abuse in their child. If they feel something is wrong, they need to honor that feeling, and take some proactive steps. First and foremost, one needs to communicate with their child. If substance use is expected, drug testing is highly recommended. If the child has nothing to hide, then there is generally little resistance. If the resistance is great, or there is refusal, it is an indicator of use. They need to know the warning signs, including change in grades, appearance, activities, friends, as well as become familiar with the risk factors, ie, family history, history of trauma. Parents should attempt to be on the same page in regards to addressing the problem, as the child can easily feel differences between parents and use them to their advantage. The first step would be to consult with someone who has experience in working with adolescents and substance abuse, and who is credentialed in such. This could be with a private mental health specialist, or in a treatment program, like the Thelma McMillen Center. Here at Thelma, free assessments and drug testing are available, and recommendations are made based on the need of the child.

7) What should a parent do when they are concerned that their teen may be in trouble?

Parents need to trust their instinct. As a result of their love and concern, they will often tend to dismiss or minimize signs of alcohol or drug abuse in their child. If they feel something is wrong, they need to honor that feeling, and take some proactive steps. First and foremost, one needs to communicate with their child. If substance use is expected, drug testing is highly recommended. If the child has nothing to hide, then there is generally little resistance. If the resistance is great, or there is refusal, it is an indicator of use. They need to know the warning signs, including change in grades, appearance, activities, friends, as well as become familiar with the risk factors, ie, family history, history of trauma. Parents should attempt to be on the same page in regards to addressing the problem, as the child can easily feel differences between parents and use them to their advantage. The first step would be to consult with someone who has experience in working with adolescents and substance abuse, and who is credentialed in such. This could be with a private mental health specialist, or in a treatment program, like the Thelma McMillen Center. Here at Thelma, free assessments and drug testing are available, and recommendations are made based on the need of the child.

For More Information

For FAQ source material, please see national organizations on our online resource center.

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