Is Your Teen Abusing Alcohol or Drugs? What You Can Do to Help

Alicia is a bright high school sophomore who’s frequently teased because she’s overweight. Josh is a junior; the science nerd who excels in academics but silently struggles to fit in socially. Sarah is a pretty senior who’s liked by everyone and bound for a top notch college. Zach, a junior, is an introverted athlete who excels at every sport he plays. At first glance, this seems like a disparate group of teens. However, they all have something in common with millions of other teens – teens from all walks of life: they all have a substance abuse problem. Alicia recently started abusing prescription stimulants in a desperate attempt to drop the unwanted weight that has plagued her since grade school. Josh smokes pot after school; being a bit high strung it helps him relax while providing a group of “friends” to hang out with. Sarah, like many girls her age, abuses stimulants to stay thin. She also sneaks alcohol to self-medicate a well-hidden self-esteem problem. Zach recently started taking anabolic steroids (secretly purchased from one of the trainers at the local health club) to boost his athletic performance in the hopes of securing a sports scholarship. He also drinks to “loosen up” in social situations that tap into his shyness. For different reasons, each of these teens abuses alcohol or drugs. But since none fit the “typical profile” of an obviously troubled teen addict – you know, the rebellious girl with tattoos and spiked hair or the cliché “bad boy” who challenges authority, skips class often, has failing grades, and eventually drops out of school altogether – the adults in their lives are oblivious. At least thus far.

Take off the blinders

If you have a teen who’s abusing alcohol or drugs – and you haven’t yet realized it – you’re certainly not alone. Kids can be incredibly clever when it comes to hiding a substance abuse problem. Of course, that’s usually just part of the problem. You, like many oblivious parents, may also be in the dark because:

  • You tell yourself things like, “my child would never do that” or “he (or she) is such a good kid”
  • You’re too busy or self-involved to pay attention
  • You don’t talk to your teen regularly to find out what’s going on in his or her life
  • You choose to ignore the red flags (because on some level you don’t want to accept or are afraid to accept the truth)
  • Your perception is clouded by your own struggle with substance abuse or addiction
  • You’re never home long enough to notice

You can’t help your teen if you don’t first take off the blinders. It doesn’t matter how popular, smart, athletic, or talented your son or daughter is. It doesn’t matter if he or she attends church every Sunday. It doesn’t matter if your teen’s grades are above average or even excellent. You may think these types of things are “proof” that your teen would never get caught up in alcohol or drugs. But, the reality is, ALL teens are susceptible. And you need to accept the possibility that your teen may not be as perfect, pure, or innocent as you once believed. Like Sarah, your teen may be struggling with low self-esteem; afraid she’ll lose her popularity if she gains a few pounds. Like Zach and Josh, your teen may struggle to fit in or feel comfortable in social situations. And if your teen is being bullied and teased like Alicia, he or she may be especially vulnerable to substance abuse. You won’t know, though, if you don’t communicate with your teen.

Open the doors of communication

As you probably recall from your own teenage years, talking to your parents (or feeling they listen to anything you say) wasn’t always (or ever) easy. But good communication can take place. It takes effort, but it’s not impossible. Many teens secretly long for more positive attention and understanding from their parents. Others have a good – albeit pretty superficial – ongoing dialogue, but its lack of substance and depth keep it from truly benefitting either party. Good communication with your teen serves many purposes, many of which are especially important if your teen is using (or thinking about using) alcohol or drugs: 1)      It makes you more aware of the things your teen is struggling with 2)      It gives you opportunities to notice subtle signs of use and when something is “off” 3)      It creates a sense of safety that enables your teen to talk to you more openly 4)      It allows you to convey that you genuinely care and want to help if there’s a problem 5)      It increases the likeliness that your teen will ask for help and guidance rather than hide problems from you If communication is lacking with your teen, or you at least know there’s room for improvement, you can:

  • Spend more quality 1 on 1 time together
  • Make having family meals together a priority, and encourage positive dialogue during this time (which also means cell phones are not allowed at the dinner table)
  • Listen more often than you talk
  • Keep lectures to a minimum
  • Treat your teen with respect (e.g. don’t “talk down” to, constantly criticize, or interrupt or talk over him or her)
  • Show a genuine interest in your teen’s life

Know the red flags

Although teens can be quite good at hiding their drug or alcohol use, there are almost always signs – if you know what to look for. Also, don’t assume that any drug or substance is off-limits. Today’s teens are exposed to more drugs than you might imagine. Not to mention, some of the most widely abused substances can be found right at home or purchased from the local drug store. Popular drugs abused by teens, and several common associated symptoms of abuse, include: Ecstasy and other “club drugs”. Signs of abuse include euphoric mood, elevated body temperature, excitement, confusion, teeth clenching, dilated pupils. Narcotics – Prescription painkillers such as Vicodin, Percocet, and OxyContin; heroin. Signs of abuse include drowsiness, euphoria, slowed breathing, flu-like symptoms, slurred speech, and fatigue. Heroin use often includes track marks from injecting the substance. Stimulants – Prescription and street stimulants (e.g. Ritalin, Adderall, meth, cocaine). Signs of abuse include unusual or rapid weight loss, hyperactivity, difficulties sleeping or staying awake for long periods, paranoia, and rapid heart rate. Meth use can also cause skin sores and tooth decay. Snorting cocaine often causes frequent nose bleeds. OTC cough and cold medicines (e.g. Sudafed, Theraflu, Dimetapp, etc.). Signs of abuse include sleepiness, coordination problems, slurred speech, hallucinations, and confusion. Inhalants, such as gasoline, glue, furniture polish, cooking sprays. Sings of abuse include cracked lips, runny nose, chemical odors, irritable mood, and confusion. Anabolic steroids. Signs of abuse may include aggressive behavior, irritability, paranoia, as well as physical changes. For example, males may develop breasts and lose their hair; females may develop a deeper voice and facial hair, along with a decrease in breast size. Other signs that your teen may be abusing drugs or alcohol include:

  • Spending more time alone in his or her bedroom
  • Secretive behavior or an increased demand for privacy
  • Getting behind on school work
  • Skipping classes or entire days of school
  • Increased apathy / loss of interest in things he or she once enjoyed
  • Unexpected packages arriving in the mail
  • Use (or more frequent use) of mouthwash, breath mints, perfumes, incense, air freshener sprays
  • Increasingly erratic behavior or mood swings
  • Unexplained changes in mood (from normal – e.g. more depressed, more upbeat)
  • Changes in sleep or appetite
  • Changes in energy level (e.g. more lethargic or more energetic)

It’s important to note that each of these things could be due to other things going in your teen’s life, such as stress or a health issue, and not drugs. Be careful to not jump to conclusions or make accusations without sufficient evidence. It’s always best to talk to your teen and ask about drug or alcohol abuse in a non-accusing and non-assuming way. Putting him or her on the defense, or assuming the worst, is a good way to quickly slam shut the door of communication.

Getting your teen into treatment

If you’ve confirmed, or have strong reasons to believe, that your teen is abusing alcohol or drugs, the next step is to reach out for help. This is not the time to put your head in the sand or tell yourself “this is just a phase”, and ignore the problem or hope it will eventually just go away. It won’t likely go away, and it very well might get much worse – leading to potentially disastrous consequences.   (There are thousands of parents who deeply regret not being more proactive with their teen’s substance abuse problem. Don’t become one of them.) If your teen is under the age of 18, you have the right to get him or her into a treatment program – even if your child doesn’t want to go. Granted, no parent likes the idea of forcing their teen into treatment. However, if that’s what it takes to keep your child safe and giving him or her the best chance of recovery now – before things get much worse – then it’s a wise and necessary decision. An easy one? No. It can be gut-wrenching, especially if your child swears to never speak to your again or accuses you of betraying his or her trust. But this isn’t the time to be your teen’s “friend”. You are the parent – the adult in the relationship – and this is a tough decision that you have to make. Now, that being said, it’s a good idea to consult with someone at an adolescent treatment center to determine the best way to approach the situation. The more things you can do to keep it from escalating, the better it is for everyone – especially your child. However, even if your child ends up kicking and screaming about being forced into treatment, that doesn’t mean he or she can’t or won’t benefit from it. Studies have shown that a desire to change and willingness to go to treatment aren’t necessary in order for treatment to be beneficial. Of course, it’s certainly preferable if the process goes smoothly, but don’t buy into the lie that it has to be that way or treatment will be futile.

Consider an intervention

Sometimes it can be helpful to do an “intervention”. Interventions involve gathering those closest to (and preferably respected by) your teen to collectively confront him or her regarding the substance abuse problem. A highly respected coach, best friend, and favorite aunt or uncle are examples of who should be included in the intervention. An interventional specialist may also be hired to help guide the process. An intervention is not meant to be an ambush or attack (although it can easily be perceived as such). Rather, the goal of an intervention is to help break through the denial and resistance by having each person express their concerns about the impact the abuse or addiction is having on them, as well as on the teen. While an intervention may be met with resistance and anger, it can also help some teens realize just how many people genuinely care about and support them. Individuals who abuse substances often don’t realize the extent to which their behavior is hurting and affecting others. They may also mistakenly feel that nobody really cares. Interventions can help them see things from the perspective of others.

Actively participate

Once your teen is in treatment, it’s vital that you (and your spouse, if relevant) actively participate in his or her treatment. Most adolescent rehab programs have family therapy sessions as part of the treatment process. Substance abuse problems often (although not always) stem from conflict or other problems at home. Family sessions can be difficult, and may tap into issues and wounds that are very uncomfortable and painful to address. However, if you truly want your child to succeed in treatment, don’t ignore the importance of your participation. Another way you can participate is to educate yourself about your teen’s particular substance abuse issue, as well as teen substance abuse and addiction in general. If your teen in a residential or inpatient facility, take advantage of opportunities to visit. Don’t just dump your teen off at a treatment facility and become a stranger for the duration he or she is a patient there. Show your support in every way you can.

Final thoughts

If you want your child to have a successful recovery, it’s vital that you also face and address issues of your own that may be contributing to the problem. These include any substance abuse, mental health, marital, or parenting issues. If you’re not sure, talk to a mental health professional or addiction specialist. A parenting class, individual or couple’s therapy, and / or drug or alcohol treatment of your own may be necessary if you truly want your child to succeed. It’s extremely difficult to acknowledge and face the fact that your teen is abusing alcohol or drugs. But doing so – and taking the steps to get him or her into treatment – is vital to your child’s future success and happiness in life. If you have questions or concerns, pick up the phone and contact an adolescent rehab treatment center today.      

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