Traffic accidents and accidental drug overdoses are the leading causes of death for teens in the US. For each of these deaths, there are countless more “close calls” and visits to emergency rooms every day. Many needless tragedies could be prevented if teens understood the dangers of alcohol and drug abuse and received the help they need.
In 2012, almost one-fourth of high school students surveyed by The Partnership at Drugfree.org said they had abused prescription drugs. One-fifth of these had their first experience with drugs before the age of 14. The survey found that many students, and even some of their families, were not aware of the dangers of prescription drug abuse. It is never too early to start talking to your children about drug and alcohol abuse.
Young people are particularly vulnerable to drug and alcohol abuse. In school they associate with hundreds of peers, more than at any other time in their lives, and are easily influenced by their social groups. They are excited about trying new things, and feel a need to assert their independence from their parents. At the same time, they are often experiencing emotional turmoil: pressure to succeed in school and sports, constantly evolving social relationships, mood swings, social anxiety, hormonal changes, and disappointment at not being unable to live up to unrealistic expectations.
Do not assume that because your child is intelligent, he or she is mature enough to avoid substance abuse. Studies have shown that the human brain is not fully mature until a person is in his or her twenties. In teens, the parts of the brain involved in emotional responses are more active than in adults, while the parts of the brain that control emotional, impulsive responses are not yet mature. In addition, studies suggest that the adolescent brain responds differently from the adult brain to the effects of drugs and alcohol.
The idea that drinking alcohol is a normal rite of passage to adulthood is a myth. Even one experiment can result in a traffic accident, a violent incident, or an unwanted pregnancy. While the motivation for first trying drugs and alcohol is often a desire to experiment, to escape, or to fit in with a social group, a teen may have underlying issues that contribute to abuse and even drug addiction and alcoholism. A teen who is predisposed to addiction or alcoholism can quickly find himself or herself in serious trouble. Young people seem to advance more quickly through the stages of addiction than adults.
Substance abuse in teens is often associated with undiagnosed mental illness, early aggressive or disruptive behaviors, depression, ADHD, and anxiety. Emotional instability, family problems, or a traumatic experience can trigger substance abuse. If your family has a history of alcoholism or drug abuse, your teen is at risk. Smoking is also a risk factor for substance abuse. Signs that a teen may be abusing drugs or alcohol include:
- Withdrawing from family and friends
- Sudden change in relationships, friends, favorite hangouts, and hobbies.
- Frequent irritability, mood swings, crying or laughing for little or no reason
- Disrupted or abnormal sleeping and eating patterns
- Deterioration of physical appearance and hygiene
- Poor performance in school or at work
- Hostility and aggression towards anyone who tries to impose rules
- Bloodshot eyes, frequent nosebleeds, uncharacteristic lethargy or hyperactivity
- Unusual smells on the breath or clothing
- Presence of drug paraphernalia or pill bottles in the teen’s room or car
Early intervention is important. If you suspect that your teen is abusing drugs or alcohol, do not hesitate to talk to him or her about it. If you are wrong, your child will forgive you. Your pediatrician, family physician, or a trained professional can assess the extent of your teen’s problem and direct you to appropriate treatment, such as counseling, medication for an underlying condition, or a rehabilitation program.
Know who your child’s friends are and get to know their parents. Do not allow easy access to prescription drugs or alcohol in your home. Of the high school students who reported abusing prescription drugs, more than 70 percent had obtained them from family or friends.
Even if your teen never drinks or takes drugs, friends might. You could save a life if you teach your child:
- Never get into a car driven by someone who has been drinking or taking drugs of any kind.
- Tell an adult if someone is vomiting, appears disoriented or unresponsive, or has a seizure.
- Get medical assistance immediately for anyone who is unconscious. Do not wait for them to “sleep it off.”
- Mixing drugs and alcohol can be fatal.
- Taking more than one prescription pill of any kind can lead to an overdose.
- Binge drinking and drinking games can result in alcohol poisoning.
- No one should consume more than one drink per hour.
- Tell your parent if a friend is regularly drinking, experimenting with prescription drugs, or engaging in other dangerous activities.
You can find more information on teen substance abuse and how to protect your child on the following websites: