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Drugs, Alcohol, and Your Kid

by Judith Seixas and Geraldine Youcha

Risk factors

Some youngsters are clearly more likely than others to be attracted to and hooked on drugs, nicotine and alcohol. The risk increases with any of these factors and a cluster of these factors can tip the scales:

  1. A family history of drug use or alcoholism
  2. A family in turmoil
  3. Learning difficulties
  4. Behavioral problems before adolescence
  5. Early school failure
  6. Hyperactivity
  7. Poor impulse control
  8. Rebelliousness
  9. Low self-esteem
  10. The belief that "it can't happen to me"
  11. Thinking "marijuana (or cocaine, or heroin if it is not injected) is not addictive

Warning signs

There are also warning signs that can help parents decide if a problem is brewing or a child is already involved in substance use. Adolescence is a bumpy ride, and some of these warning signs may only be the normal symptoms of growing up, but parents have to be alert to the possibility that, with their particular child, they may indicate trouble. In general, you should suspect some drug use if you observe one or more of these indicators:

  1. A change of friends from those you know and new friends who seem to avoid you. But don't pin all your youngster's troubles on "bad friends." Often the child who is already troubled is the one who is drawn to a group that is taking dangerous risks and is heavily committed to using alcohol and drugs.
  2. Friendship with older teenagers and young adults. Older users need the attention and admiration they get from younger kids and often entice them to be followers and dealers.
  3. A best friend who uses drugs. This is the single best indicator of use.
  4. Daily cigarette smoking. This is an early warning that other substance use may be in the picture.
  5. A deterioration in appearance. The reverse is not necessarily a safety signal. Many drug users look like clean-cut all-American kids instead of stereotypical drug users.
  6. A decline in performance at home. Chores may be neglected or done sloppily; curfew may be ignored.
  7. A change in school performance. The drop in grades may or may not be a dramatic sign by itself, but watch for tardiness, truancy, and disciplinary problems.
  8. Use of street or drug language.
  9. Hypersensitivity, irritability. The teenage user is often hostile, avoids family contact, overreacts to mild criticism, and deflects the topic when pressed for accountability.
  10. Lack of concern about people, ideas, and values that used to be very important.
  11. Wide mood swings. Although mood changes are a normal part of adolescence, extreme emotional swings indicate a problem and be the result of drug or alcohol use.
  12. Secretive phone calls. Callers who hang up when you answer may be your child's new friends or acquaintances involved in substance use.
  13. The disappearance of money, personal belongings, pills or alcohol.
  14. The sudden appearance of expensive merchandise. Electronic equipment, clothes, or jewelry your child can't possibly afford may indicate drug dealing. Be mindful that a teenager will often deny any illegal or inappropriate activity with explanations such as, "I borrowed it from a friend."
  15. Lying.
  16. Trouble with the law. Kids may be picked up for shoplifting, driving while intoxicated, disorderly conduct.

What if?

What if your suspicion about your child's drug use is accurate? How can you tell use from abuse? One counselor has a simple rule of thumb: three tries is experimentation; more than that is use. Abuse is characterized by the need to have the drug (whether it is marijuana, cocaine, alcohol or tobacco) and preoccupation with getting it.

Once you've faced reality and know that your child needs help, the most crucial step is getting the right help. You must determine what kind of intervention is best for your particular child and what is available close to home. The right help at the right time can get your child back on track. You may not know where to turn first. You can begin by using your local phone book. Start with a call to one or more of these:

  • Your family doctor
  • Hot line: usually listed under Alcoholism Treatment or Drug Abuse Information and Treatment in the yellow pages
  • Community Services: often in the white pages
  • An agency specializing in treating drug/alcohol abuse and related problems: often listed in the yellow pages under Drug Abuse
  • A local counseling or mental health center: often under the yellow pages
  • A community-based storefront counseling center
  • A social worker, psychologist, or drug counselor
  • The school guidance department or student assistance service
  • A police youth officer
  • A clergyman
  • A relative, particularly one in a helping profession

Children who don't use drugs

Despite the fact that drugs, alcohol and tobacco are available everywhere, some kids don't get involved. More than half of all high school seniors have not tried marijuana, and alcohol, our social drug, has not been tried by about twenty percent of twelfth graders. Unfortunately, for those who do drink, binge drinking (5 or more drinks in a row) is a pervasive problem. What helps some youngsters avoid the pitfall of today's world? Some children just seem to have an inner compass. They say very early, "That's not me." In addition, a national study (The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, 1997) found that teenagers who feel "connected"-who feel loved, understood and feel their parents pay attention to them-were less likely to use drugs. Parents can help protect their children by providing:

  • Trust and support. A study of seven thousand youngsters showed that those who didn't have the trust and support of their parents were more likely to cave in to peer pressure.
  • Realistically hight academic standards.
  • The chance to succeed.
  • The chance to fail and still be accepted.
  • Praise, love and physical touching. The "Did you hug your kid today?" bumper stickers apply to kids of all ages - teens as well as toddlers. Adolescents sometimes cringe, but don't let that inhibit you or make you think they need it any less than a younger child.

Whatever the reasons, and they are many-parental concern and involvement, a changing social climate that makes drug use, drunk driving, and smoking in public less "cool" than it once was-the rise in substance use seen in the early nineties seems to have been stemmed and may even be reversing. But this is no reason for complacency. It means only that the fever that had been 104 is now 102, and needs continuing attention.

About the Authors

Judith S. Seixas, a credentialed alcoholism counselor, who has written many books for young readers, including Alcohol: What It Is, What It Does; Drugs: What They Are, What They Do; and Living with a Parent Who Drinks Too Much.

Geraldine Youcha, author of Minding the Children: Child Care in American from Colonial Times to the Present and Alcohol: A Dangerous Pleasure. She has also written frequently about drug use and its side effects on the family for major magazines.

Judith S. Seixas and Geraldine Youcha are the co-authors of Children of Alcoholism: A Survivor's Manual.