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What can Parents do about Teen Drug Use?

Patricia Williams By Patricia Williams, PhD on August 5, 2015

Across the United States, drug use by teens is a serious issue. According to an annual survey of teens in the 8th, 10th, and 12th grades, conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services, nearly 40% have used alcohol, 50% have used illicit drugs, and 16% have used tobacco. These statistics are alarming, even if the dangers they signal are not apparent. For instance, teens who regularly abuse alcohol or drugs are ten times more likely to develop life-long substance abuse problems, and the rate of overdose resulting in death among teens is on the rise.

The question is, what can parents do about teen drug use? In order to answer this questions, there are three things parents need to know first. These are the risk factors for drug use, the types of drugs teens use, and the signs of drug use. If parents arm themselves with this information, they will be better prepared to prevent or correct teen drug use.

Risk Factors for Teen Drug Use

Experts generally agree that the human brain does not fully develop until a person is in their mid-twenties. The last part of the brain to develop is the portion that is related to judgement and impulse control. This is why so many teens make questionable decisions and participate in risky behaviors. In addition to this, there are some specific risk factors when it comes to teen drug and alcohol use. According to an article published by Colorado State University, these can be divided into three categories: family risk factors, individual risk factors, and community risk factors. Each of these categories contains more specific risks.

  • Family risk factors include:
    • a family history of drug or alcohol use,
    • a chaotic home environment,
    • parents being poor role models, and
    • a lack of communication between teens and their parents.
  • Individual risk factors include:
    • being male (drug and alcohol use among males is almost double of that among females),
    • untreated mental health problems or mood disorders such as ADHD, depression, or anxiety,
    • low self-esteem or poor social and coping skills, and
    • bad grades.
  • Community risk factors include:
    • peer pressure,
    • popular societal sensationalism (a perception of the societal benefit of something based on its portrayal in popular media),
    • the easy availability of drugs and alcohol, and
    • the rate of use of drugs and alcohol in the local area.

Prevention is by far the best means of combating teen drug use. Lessening these risk factors as much as possible makes that use far less likely. However, it does not guarantee that teens will not use drugs.

Types of Drugs Teens Use

Since prevention is not always possible, the next thing parents need know is what types of drugs teens most often use. Teens use many of the same drugs that adults do, however teens are more likely to use specific drugs. The most common drugs used by teens include:

  • Alcohol
  • Marijuana
  • Nicotine (obtained from cigarettes, e-cigs, vaporizers, and chewing tobacco), though this is on the decline
  • Inhalants, such as aerosols, glue, and gasoline, whose use is known as “huffing” (these are also in decline)
  • Over the counter medications like cough syrup, pseudoephedrine (Sudafed), and diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
  • Prescription medications, including opioid painkillers like hydrocodone (Vicodin) and oxycodone (OxyContin), and depressants such as barbiturates and benzodiazepines (Valium, Klonopin, Xanax)
  • Steroids and other performance enhancing drugs
  • “Club drugs”, such as hallucinogens (LSD, psilocybin mushrooms) and MDMA (ecstasy)

Most alarming, though, is the dramatic rise in recent years of the use of amphetamines. These include medications for ADHD such as Ritalin, and methamphetamines such as “crystal meth”. Also, the amphetamine Adderall has gained in popularity, as it is perceived to increase intelligence, focus, and production. These things are becoming ever more important in today’s test-heavy educational atmosphere.

Recognizing the Signs of Drug Use

Knowing what risk factors increase teen drug use, and what drugs teens use, are only two parts of the equation. The third thing to know are the signs that a teen is using drugs. The National Library of Medicine states, that there are a number of physical, behavioral, and psychological signs that indicate drug or alcohol use in adolescents.

  • Physical signs include:
    • bloodshot eyes,
    • dilated or narrowed pupils,
    • dramatic weight gain or loss,
    • changes in eating and sleeping habits,
    • slurred speech and coordination impairment, and
    • a decline in physical appearance and personal hygiene.
  • Behavioral signs include:
    • keeping secrets or acting suspiciously,
    • sudden changes in friends and/or hobbies,
    • asking for or stealing money,
    • sudden poor grades or attendance in school, and
    • frequently getting into trouble.
  • Psychological signs include:
    • apathy and lethargy,
    • sudden or violent mood swings,
    • unwarranted paranoia and anxiety, and
    • periods of unusual anger, giddiness, or hyperactivity.

It is important for parents to keep in mind that these signs do not necessarily mean that their teen is using drugs. Opening a line of communication is the key to drug use prevention or correction.

Talking to Teens about Drug Use

Parents should never be afraid to talk to their teens and answer questions related to drug use openly and honestly. They should remain calm and understanding. They should set firm expectations about drug use, and explain why. Parents should also explain the consequences for drug use, including their immediate effects and the possibility of addiction, to their teens. What can parents do about teen drug use? The answer is simple: know the risk factors and try to mitigate them, know what drugs teens use, know the signs of drug use in teens, and talk to teens about drug use.

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