People become addicted to drugs for a myriad of reasons. Although many addicts do not start out to become addicted to drugs, they often underestimate the power the drugs can exert within and over the body. The drugs carry initial benefits of relief of pain and anxiety, and offer an escape from one’s problems. However, there are often secondary benefits that come with the drug use. A teenager may derive a secondary benefit of finding and belonging to a peer group. Albeit, that peer group is composed of other teenagers that abuse drugs, it is, nevertheless, a peer group.
Within the family, the drug abuse of the child may take the focus of the parents away from their own marital conflicts as they focus on getting help for their drug addicted child. The drug use inadvertently serves to bolster the child’s sense that he is “keeping the family together.” Although irrational, this can serve as a powerful motivator in the mind of the child and encourage the continual use of the drug, despite any negative consequences.
Drug use may also mask underlying mental illness such as depression, post traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, and personality disorders. Dealing with and focusing on drug use may actually be easier than dealing with the underlying mood disorder. But treating the symptom without addressing the underlying cause is rarely effective.
Despite any perceived benefits of drug abuse, parents cannot and should not ignore signs and cues given by their children that the drug use is problematic or escalating.
Signs to look for include:
1. Is the pre-teen or teenage child engaging in activities at this early age that are known to lead to addiction such as smoking or drinking alcohol? Even if you as a parent do not accept or believe that these are particularly risky behaviors, and you may allow underage drinking or smoking in your home, understand that most drug addicts begin using addictive substances between the ages of 12 – 15 years. They typically do not start with “hard drugs” like heroin and cocaine. So even if you allow your child to engage in apparent “social use” of otherwise legal substances like alcohol or tobacco, continue to monitor these activities and make note of changes in friends or behaviors that may indicate progression to stronger drugs and addiction.
2. Has your child changed his peer group? Are you seeing new friends at your house? Do you know the parents of these friends? Invite your child’s friends and parents to dinner and get to know them. If your child or his friends are resistant to this suggestion, make note of it. Let your child know that you want to meet their friends and their parents.
3. Do you notice a change in their clothing. Are they wearing clothing that is inappropriate for the weather? Have their after school activities changed? Do you notice new or odd-looking tattoos in unusual locations? The inappropriate clothing or tattoos may indicate an attempt to cover parts of the body used for injecting drugs. Also notice if your kid has dropped out of sports or other activities that they used to enjoy and ask them about it.
These changes may not be related to drug activity, but it is important to notice them and let your child know that you have observed them, and talk about it. And don’t stop asking or questioning even if your child is reluctant or resistant to your questions. If you have a history of good, open communication with your child, then this discussion may flow easier. If open communication with your child has not been the norm, then it may be a more difficult, tense, and uncomfortable discussion. Your child will be more reluctant to talk to you if they are engaging in illegal or harmful activities. Stress to them that you love them and only want to make sure they are safe.
If you have never had a discussion with your child about drug abuse, it is never too late to begin a dialogue. If there is a history of alcohol and other drug abuse within your family, share that with your child (age appropriate). If there is a favorite uncle or aunt that is known to abuse drugs and has suffered negative consequences from that drug use, talk to your child about it so they can perceive “first hand” the negative effects of drug abuse.
And if you are a parent living with a child that you know is abusing drugs, please seek help for yourself and your child. The following website can help you find substance abuse or other mental health services in your area: www.samhsa.gov/Treatment.