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Guide for Parents of Addicted Teens

Experimenting and rebellion are hallmarks of the teenage years that sometimes lead to drug and alcohol use. If you suspect your child might be falling prey to a substance use disorder, take heart. Here’s how to recognize the signs of addiction and take action to curb destructive behaviors.

Young girl smoking and drinking beer

How Drugs and Alcohol Affect Adolescents

Adolescence and the teenage years are marked by major physical, emotional and behavioral changes. As the body and brain are adapting to adulthood, it’s likely that your teen may pick up some habits along the way that aren’t beneficial. Experimenting with drugs and alcohol is often a part of that journey.

According to the 2016 Monitoring the Future study, which surveys eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders about their drug and alcohol use, the number of adolescents using and trying these drugs in recent years has decreased in almost every category. In categories where there was an increase of use, the percentage of increase was barely statistically significant.

That’s great news, but it doesn’t mean other teens won’t develop an addiction during their teen years. In fact, according to a 2012 report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, 90 percent of people with addiction began using alcohol or other drugs before turning 18.


Brain And Body Development in Teens

Research has proven that a person’s brain and body does not reach full maturity until the mid-20s even though 18-year-olds are considered legal adults. The areas related to decision-making, behavior and problem-solving are the ones that change most in the adolescent brain between teen and adult years.

It’s no small wonder why mortality rates jump between early and late adolescence. Teens are more likely to take risks that can have dire consequences, including participating in behaviors such as drug and alcohol abuse.

Hormonal changes also play a major role in the teen brain and body, and desires to fit in, be cool and be accepted by a peer group are increasingly prominent. If a peer group is participating in a high-risk behavior, it’s a good bet a teen is going to join in to avoid being rejected from the group.

Because their bodies and brains are still developing and changing, any chemical introduced to the body, such as drugs or alcohol, can affect development.


Drugs Stunt Brain Development

Brain development research has shown that the adolescent brain is very susceptible to the acute effects of drug use, which makes teens particularly vulnerable to developing a substance use disorder. Risk-taking behaviors typical of the teen years drive an adolescent’s propensity toward trying drugs.

A 2002 study published in the journal Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews suggested that animal studies have shown adolescents to be less affected by the sedative qualities of some drugs (such as alcohol) than adults. A lowered sensitivity to the effects of these drugs can lead to increased use.

Substance use disorders are likely to develop during the adolescent years, and age is an important factor. Research has shown that the younger a person begins using drugs, the more likely he or she is to develop a substance use disorder.

Frequent and heavy drug use has been linked to the inability of the brain to develop the fatty tissue that surrounds brain cells, which aids in nervous system function as well as information comprehension and retention.

Long-term effects on the brain from continued, heavy drug use include:
  • Dramatic changes in the brain’s neurons and brain circuits
  • Development of a tolerance that requires more drugs to achieve the same effect
  • Overstimulation of the “reward circuit” in the brain

Because the growing body of research suggests that adolescent brains react to stimulants, nicotine and cannabis differently than adult brains, parents have a duty to keep these substances out of the hands of their children if possible. If teens find their way to these substances outside of the home, parents must stay vigilant in monitoring their behavior for changes indicative of drug use.

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Alcohol Harms the Liver and Brain

In the short term, alcohol can produce a relaxing and uninhibited effect in teens. Brain activity slows, and there’s a euphoric effect that can become addictive. In the long term, alcohol’s effects can be dire on the adolescent brain. In large doses, alcohol kills brain cells even in adults. In a teen’s still-developing brain, alcohol can disrupt normal brain development.

Other long term effects of alcohol include:
  • Liver damage and cirrhosis of the liver
  • Decreased brain mass linked to learning and comprehension disruption
  • Stomach and intestinal ulcers
  • Destroyed organs
  • Increased blood pressure and risk for stroke or heart attack
  • Anemia caused by lowered levels of iron and vitamin B

A 2007 study published in the journal Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior suggests that trying alcohol should be acknowledged as one of the reward-seeking and risk-taking behaviors that characterize the teen years.

Unfortunately, underage drinking can have far more tragic consequences. According to a 2006 report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, approximately 5,000 young people die each year as a result of underage drinking. This includes:

  • 1,900 deaths from motor vehicle crashes
  • 1,600 homicides
  • 300 suicides
  • Other deaths related to falls, burns and drowning

Despite the possibility of these negative consequences, teens are likely to seek experiences with drugs or alcohol while growing up partly because the area of the brain that connects long-term consequences with short-term actions is not fully developed.

Which Drugs Are Most Frequently Used by Teens?

The good news is that over the past four years, drug use in eighth-, 10th- and 12th-grade teens has declined steadily overall, according to the 2016 Monitoring the Future survey.

However, drug use is still prevalent among teens, and some drugs remain more popular than others. Alcohol is the most frequently used drug among teens, with more than one-third of 12th graders reporting that they’d been drunk at least once.

High school seniors report using the following drugs at least once in the past year:
  • Marijuana (36.4%)
  • Amphetamines (8.7%)
  • Synthetic marijuana (7.9%)
  • Prescription painkillers (7.1%)
  • Cough medicine (5%)
  • Sedatives (4.8%)
  • Tranquilizers (4.6%)
  • Hallucinogens (4.5%)
  • Ecstasy (4%)
  • Salvia (3.4%)

Among the amphetamines that were most frequently used, Adderall was the top drug, with 7.4 percent of 12th-graders reporting having used it in the past year. Among prescription painkillers, OxyContin (3.6 percent) and Vicodin (5.3 percent) were the most popular drugs in that category.

Signs of Drug and Alcohol Use

As a parent, chances are you know your child better than anyone. You may even see some of your bad habits reflected in them. Various physical, psychological and behavioral signs will be present that indicate your child might be using drugs or alcohol, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

Physical signs of drug abuse:
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Frequent nosebleeds (indicative of snorting drugs such as cocaine or meth)
  • Changes in appetite or sleep patterns
  • Sudden weight gain or loss
  • Seizures
  • Deterioration of physical appearance
  • Injuries your teen can’t or won’t tell you about
  • Unusual smells on breath, body or clothes
  • Shakes or tremors
  • Incoherent or slurred speech
  • Impaired coordination
Behavioral signs of drug abuse:
  • Declining grades, skipping class or trouble at school
  • Poor attendance and performance at work
  • Loss of interest in extra-curricular activities
  • Complaints from teachers or supervisors
  • Borrowing or stealing money
  • Missing valuables or prescription drugs
  • Isolation, withdrawing, silence or secretive behavior
  • Clashes with other family members
  • Drug-related music, posters or clothing
  • Demanding more privacy, locking doors or avoiding eye-contact
  • Changing friends, relationships, hang-out spots and hobbies
  • Using incense or perfume to hide the smell of drugs
  • Using eye drops to hide bloodshot eyes or dilated pupils
Psychological signs of drug abuse:
  • Sudden change in personality or attitude
  • Mood swings, irritability, angry outbursts or laughing at nothing
  • Unusual hyperactivity or agitation
  • Lack of motivation and inability to focus
  • Appearing fearful, withdrawn, anxious or paranoid for no reason

Many of these signs are typical behaviors that adolescents adopt as they get older regardless of drug use. That’s what makes identifying drug use among teens tricky. If you feel like your teen is exhibiting some of the more severe signs of drug use listed above, it might be time to confront them in a loving way about your suspicions.

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How to Talk to Your Child About Drug Use

It can be confusing and nerve-wracking to navigate these waters with your child, especially if he or she, like many teenagers, is reluctant to share information or connect with you. However, the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids has released some guidelines for parents on holding an intervention for of their children.

These guidelines can help you broach these sensitive topics with your teen and get them help, if necessary, before it’s too late.

Before you talk to your teen, consider this word of warning: Figure out whether they’re currently under the influence of drugs first.

Individuals who are on drugs and are provoked can act in erratic and even violent ways. If you believe your teen might be under the influence at the time you wish to address drug use, wait until he or she is sober before approaching the subject.

In the days and weeks leading up to your conversation, do some investigating. You may already have an idea of what drugs your child is using based on the signs listed above. Keep track of the observations you make in a journal or on your phone in a secret memo file. Include dates, times and other details when possible.

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Once you’ve made some notes about the signs you’ve noticed, look for drugs and drug paraphernalia in your teen’s room and car. If you want to collect concrete evidence of your child’s involvement in drug use, this is the best course of action. Prepare for your child to accuse you of “snooping” or violating his or her privacy. Be prepared to defend your actions.

If you are in a relationship, talk to your spouse or partner about your plans to confront the situation. Ideally, that spouse or partner will want to participate in the conversation, if only just to serve as a mediator and provide support during the confrontation.

Have an idea of what you’d like the outcome of the first conversation about your teen’s drug use to be. Understand that this is probably not going to be a one-time conversation. Rather, it will take a series of conversations to convince your child to discontinue drug use or enter a rehab facility.

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Finding Help For Your Teen

If, from your conversations, it becomes apparent that your teen is in need of medical help, contact a professional. This is the first important step in bringing your child back to a healthy lifestyle.

Family practice physicians and licensed counselors can start the process by evaluating your child on a primary physical and psychological basis. A physician will be able to run tests to determine whether your child has been using drugs. These tests can reveal the severity and length of drug use as well as which drugs are still in your child’s body and how much damage has been done, if any.

If it’s determined that your child has an addiction, see an addiction specialist. More than 3,500 board-certified addiction specialists are ready to help. With input from your primary care physician, a licensed therapist and an addiction specialist, you can make an informed decision about whether your child needs 24-hour care in a rehabilitation treatment center.

Preventing Future Substance Abuse

Even if one of your children has made poor decisions regarding substance use, you can still make an impact on other children, especially your own. More than one in five parents believe they have little influence on their child’s decisions to take substances, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Fortunately, that’s not true. Surveys on teens have repeatedly shown that parents have a huge impact on their children’s perceptions of drug use.

Your relationship with your child is the primary way to prevent them from making potentially life-altering decisions before their lives have even begun. Consider these seven tips before developing an approach to educating your children about drugs, alcohol and the consequences of their use.

Know their friends: As children get older, their peer group plays a bigger and bigger part in their life decisions. The desire to fit in, be accepted and garner praise from their peers is a major factor in their day-to-day lives. If you ensure that their friends are exerting a positive influence, and aren’t involved with drugs or alcohol themselves, there’s a good chance your child won’t be interested in drugs or alcohol either.

Model good behavior yourself: As an adult, it’s easy to say, “Well, it’s legal for me to get drunk and smoke cigarettes, but you shouldn’t.” An unfortunate number of parents are not good role models for their children. Research shows that adolescents tend to imitate their parents’ behavior.

Create a positive environment: A home that reinforces good behavior and builds self-esteem will encourage teens, who have fragile egos and dispositions, to shun self-doubt and feel confident about making decisions about what’s right and wrong in their lives. Encourage them to relax in healthy ways and relieve stress with exercise and leisure fun.

Talk to teens early: Try not to wait until you suspect there might be a problem to address drugs and alcohol with your teens. In a 2014 survey by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, 8 percent of teens whose parents were against underage drinking admitted to drinking alcohol. Conversely, 42 percent of teens whose parents took a neutral or positive stance on underage drinking admitted to partaking in alcohol.

Consider peer pressure: Warn your children about peer pressure and the negative consequences it can bring. Teach them to identify peer pressure situations and how to respond to these influences. It may not be the coolest thing to do, but it can save them a lifetime of struggles.

Enforce discipline and consequences for drug use: Make clear rules about the unacceptable use of alcohol and drugs before it becomes an issue. Remind your teen of these rules often. Lack of repercussions can lead to continued and increased experimentation, which may lead to addiction. Reasonable consequences at home are often less severe than those carried out by school officials or law enforcement.

Keep an eye out: Monitor your children vigilantly and know where they are at all times. Without invading their privacy or betraying their trust, keep tabs on them. Your children should have no problem sharing their whereabouts or happenings within their social group. If you feel your child is being secretive, there may be a problem.

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Resources for Parents

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration:
Treatment Locator 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or online here

American Society of Addiction Medicine: Find a Physician

American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry: Psychiatrist Finder

Partnership for Drug-Free Kids: Parents Helpline 1-855-378-4373 or online here