Substance Abuse: Dealing With Teen Substance Use
Use of alcohol, cigarettes, inhalants, and other drugs among adolescents is a major concern for parents. Preteens and teens are starting to use harmful and illegal substances at younger ages. Teen drinking, smoking, and drug use can affect general health, physical growth, emotional development, and school performance. You can recognize and respond to substance use by:
- Knowing the signs of substance use.
- Discussing substance use with your teen.
- Getting appropriate treatment if your teen has an abuse problem.
You can recognize and deal with substance abuse in your teen by using the following techniques.
Is your teen using alcohol or drugs?
If you think your teen may be using substances, look for warning signs such as:
- Signs that suggest substance use. Watch for a decline in personal appearance or other evidence of substance use such as discarded chemical-soaked rags or drug paraphernalia.
- Changes in peer relationships. Peer influence has the greatest effect on whether your teen is using substances.
- Changes in home behavior that are more severe than expected from teenagers, such as aggressiveness or withdrawal.
- School problems that indicate a loss of interest or lack of involvement.
Has he or she experimented?
If you believe that your teen has begun experimenting with alcohol or other substances:
- Ask about use. Find out what substances he or she has tried, what effects the substances had, and how he or she feels about substance use. Listen carefully to what your teen liked about using the substance and why. The closeness of your relationship will determine the quality and accuracy of the information shared with you. Ask your teen about peers who provided drugs and peers with whom your teen used drugs.
- Share concerns. Talk about your concerns, not only about drug and alcohol abuse but about other problems that may be going on, such as school performance issues.
- Review expectations. Talk with your teen about the family rules concerning substance use and the consequences when rules are broken. If you do not want your teen to use any substances (including cigarettes and alcohol), make that clear. If you do not have a written plan for dealing with this issue, write down a plan with your teen.
- Ask that he or she stop. Ask your teen to stop, especially if there is a strong family history of substance abuse or dependence. If your teen stops now, he or she probably will not develop a substance abuse problem.
- Provide drug education. This is an important time to provide additional drug information. Whether you or a doctor provides this information, talk about the immediate effects and consequences of using alcohol, inhalants, cigarettes, and/or other drugs. Don't talk only about long-term health problems.
Is it "getting out of hand"?
Your teen may be having difficulties in school, at home, with relationships, or with the law related to substance use. These difficulties point to a substance abuse problem. If you think your teen is using any substance, including alcohol, cigarettes, inhalants, or other drugs—regularly or daily—don't ignore it. This use is serious and should not be denied or minimized. Frequent or regular use of a substance can quickly lead to physical or psychological dependence—or dependency may have already developed.
To help your teen:
- Investigate. Look for evidence of your teen's use. Review the information on ways to identify use. (For more information, see the Is Your Teen Using Alcohol or Drugs? section of the topic Teen Alcohol and Drug Abuse.) If you suspect a specific drug, gather other information about that substance and its effects.
- Choose a time. Wait until he or she is not high (intoxicated) to confront your teen about using a substance. Talking to someone who is high on drugs or alcohol usually does not work and may make the situation worse.
- Ask about use. Find out what substances are being used, how often, in what setting, and where your teen is getting them. Your teen may be very reluctant to give you all this information.
- Have an evaluation. Talk with a doctor about an evaluation of your teen's substance use. Your teen may need treatment. And early treatment may prevent future alcohol and drug use problems.
- Get support. You may find it helpful to participate in a support group for family members of people with alcohol use problems, such as Al-Anon. There are Al-Anon meetings specifically for parents, and these meetings include discussions about family effects from alcohol and other substance use. Substance abuse is a family disease: all family members are affected by it, and they need some form of help to change the ways they react to the person who abuses substances.
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