The surveys and statistics bear it out: teens are misusing drugs and alcohol at younger and younger ages. Parents are often unaware that it’s begun, since the warning signs can take time to appear. The physical, emotional and behavioral changes come on gradually. Now consider that whatever you are aware of is probably the tip of the iceberg. Even if your teen or young adult finally admits that s/he is using, you’re not getting the whole story. What sounds like experimentation may be a habit. Not every teen who uses becomes a full-blown addict. Some turn things around on their own, while others are mired deeper and deeper in addiction. There’s no way to know, until you know. You don’t want to take that chance, so recognizing the signs and acting on that knowledge is crucial. Keep in mind that drug use is often the symptom you see for an underlying issue. Many teens are struggling with anxiety, depression, isolation, social and academic pressures, low self-esteem, social media/gaming, and family issues (such as divorce, illness and addiction). It’s no wonder that some turn to drugs and alcohol to numb their feelings and find acceptance. Well-informed and observant parents can make a big difference in catching this early. Intervention is prevention, so here are some signs to pay attention to: PHYSICAL EVIDENCE There's a world of paraphernalia out there (and hidden in your home). If you have suspicions, be on the lookout for butane lighters, baggies, roach clips, bongs, crumpled balls of tin foil (and check for resin/residue). Visine is their go-to for bloodshot eyes, which is among the first signs of using (often for marijuana). Many carry Visine in a pocket, glove compartment or purse. Yes, remember to check the car. The smell! You all know what alcohol and pot smell like. Don’t be fooled when your teen tells you you’re smelling incense. And if it really is incense (and using it is new), it’s most likely to cover up the smell of pot. Have pills, alcohol and other drugs gone missing? This is an easy way for kids to begin experimenting - with substances they find in their own, or someone else's, home. When a toddler swallows them, it's accidental. When a teen takes them, it's intentional. Keep them out of reach by locking them up. Notice their body. The effects of drugs and alcohol have noticeable physical effects. Marijuana may cause sudden weight gain because it increases appetite and decreases activity levels. Cocaine and crack can cause sudden weight loss. Meth causes tooth decay, sores, insomnia, sallow skin color, constipation and paranoia. And look out for a change in the smell of their breath. CHANGES IN BEHAVIOR You know your child and his habits and performance best. One of the first things you may notice is that motivation and grades are down. Apathy about schoolwork sets in or increases. Pay attention to this sign. Something else is going on, whether it's a real academic challenge or an emotional struggle. Does your child have new friends? Is he hanging around with the unmotivated kids with the 'bad' reputation? Take note. He is gravitating to the kids with low-to-no expectations of him. If he's using with them, he's just one of the guys. When a teen is feeling insecure and lonely, all he wants is to belong somewhere, where there is no pressure. This group welcomes him, no questions asked. A using teen will avoid family activities. Whether it's family gatherings, dinner out, or the movies, your child prefers, insists on staying in her room, door closed. She's withdrawn and uncommunicative. There might as well be a sign on the door - Stay Out! Don't Pay Attention to Me! Combined with other evidence and behavior changes, this is actually an invitation for you to intervene. She'll deny it, but it is a call for help. She can't fix this herself. Your child may also be irritable and have violent outbursts. You may be surprised at his reaction when you make a simple request or offer a benign comment. He is highly emotional and unpredictable. Yelling, breaking things, punching holes in the wall, and storming out of the house are not uncommon reactions. She's neglecting her appearance. Notice changes in hygiene and dress. Wearing dirty clothes and being apathetic about bathing, skin and hair are signs of poor self-image. FINANCIAL CONCERNS (theirs and yours) Missing money. When you notice money is missing from your wallet, start keeping track. Drugs and alcohol cost money, which most teens don’t have. Your child will tell you you’re crazy, just imagining it, or that you spent it yourself. Not wanting to believe their child is stealing from them, most parents will second-guess themselves. This is called denial. When you are in denial, you contribute to your child’s addiction. The 'cheap highs'. Huffing is an inexpensive way to get high with products found at home. Common among younger teens, inhalants come in third behind alcohol and tobacco as the most used substances. Inhalants (found in spray cans) include air freshener, whipped cream, spray paint and hairspray. They contain butane or toluene, which can cause serious damage to the brain, bone marrow, kidneys and liver. Other cheap highs come from glue, paint thinners and markers. All of them can be deadly. What do you do when you see multiple warning signs? First you document what you have seen and heard. Remember that your child will deny it all so you’ll leave him alone and he can continue to use, and that there is likely something else going on that needs attention, intervention and/or treatment. It’s your job to be an observer and have the facts so you can get help if it’s needed. What does that help look like? There are many professionals and resources who want to support your family when you suspect drug and alcohol misuse/abuse: guidance counselor, student assistance counselor, police liaison to the school (SRO - Student Resource Officer). They can refer you to therapists, drug counselors, a substance abuse assessment, treatment facilities, recovery coaches, therapeutic boarding schools, wilderness programs and more. There is a huge network to help you tackle this as a family. The more you know, the sooner you can catch it. Pay attention to the warning signs. Through the anger, denial and pain, your child is counting on you to have your eyes wide open.
Fern Weis is a Parent Coach and Family Recovery Life Coach. She works with parents of teens and young adults who are going through difficult situations, from the homework wars to addiction recovery, and all points in between. Fern helps parents release guilt, end enabling, and confidently prepare their children to thrive and be successful through life's challenges. FernWeis.com | 201-747-9642