Substance Abuse - Some Teens May Be Vulnerable to Substance Abuse: Do You Know the Signs?

 

Most parents are aware of, or at least think they are aware of, the signs of substance abuse. The changes in behavior, appearance, friends, academic performance — all signs of possible drug and alcohol use, right?

Often, yes. While slight shifts in some or all of those aspects of your teen’s life are to be expected, as they are part of growing up, sudden and extreme changes are usually a sign that something is going on that needs more attention. However, what many parents don’t realize is that there are often signs of potential substance abuse that show up well before your teen even takes his or her first drink or tries drugs for the first time. And given that nearly a quarter of all teens who try drugs or alcohol become addicted, it’s important for parents to learn about potential vulnerabilities so they can provide support and guidance before their kids begin to abuse substances.

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Potential Signs of a Problem

It’s important to note from the beginning that just because your teen demonstrates one (or several) of these characteristics does not mean that he or she is destined to become an addict. Many people find other ways of dealing with these issues that do not involve drugs or alcohol. Some troubled teens stay at special boarding schools for example, while others channel their issues into healthy outlets like sports or art. Parents need to be aware of these common “triggers” though, so they can intervene and help their teens before their problems become more serious.

So what should parents be alert to? Experts say that the following create an increased risk for substance issues.

Untreated Mental Illness. Children who have conditions such as anxiety, depression, personality disorders (like bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder), oppositional defiance disorder, and other behavioral disorders are often at risk for substance abuse problems. Children who have ADHD are also among the highest risk groups. Doctors suggest that these children have a greater chance of developing substance issues because they may turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate in an attempt to get control of their thoughts and emotions.

Exposure to Abuse. Children who have been exposed to abuse, either physical or psychological, are more likely to use drugs and alcohol, again, as a means to self-medicate and deal with the pain of the abuse.

Victims of Trauma. Trauma can run the gamut from serious childhood illness to abuse and violence, but one of the ongoing effects of trauma is a greater likelihood of substance abuse issues.

Family Dynamics. In families where substances are used freely, without discussion of consequences, children are likely to learn from those behaviors and use substances themselves. This is especially prevalent when teens have relationships with people who are known addicts and substance users. In addition, children from homes where parental supervision is inconsistent or nonexistent are more likely to abuse substances.

Specific Temperaments. Some teens are natural risk takers, who seek thrills and thrive on danger and taking things “to the edge.” They aren’t afraid to try drugs or alcohol, and often look forward to the rush of a high.

What Parents Can Do

Again, just because your child likes to swing higher than the other children at the playground — and then jump off — doesn’t mean he is destined for a life of addiction. However, parents need to be aware of these risk factors, and take steps to help their teens make good choices and avoid the consequences of substance abuse.

This means seeking professional help if you see indications of psychological issues, understanding that the signs of anxiety and depression in teens don’t always mirror those of adults. Focusing on communicating with your teen, and discussing the consequences of substance abuse is also important. Take a firm stand of no tolerance for drug or alcohol use with your teen, and maintain specific limits and consequences when it comes to the use of drugs and alcohol.

Get to know your child’s friends, and establish firm ground rules for who your teen can hang out with, where, and when. Setting these limits may result in some power struggles, but they will be temporary and minor compared to the potential lifelong harm that drug use can have.

Finally, make it a point to know what is going on in your teen’s life, and work to establish a relationship based on trust and respect. If your teen knows that he or she can come to you to talk about their issues, you can intervene sooner — and prevent a potentially tragic outcome. 

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