What Every Parent Needs To Know About Addiction

Grappling with the idea that your son or daughter might be struggling with substance abuse can be extraordinarily hard to deal with. No parent wants to believe that their child is developing an unhealthy relationship to drugs and alcohol, but unfortunately, what every parent needs to know about addiction, is sometimes this is just a matter of fact.

Normal Use Vs. Drug Abuse – Defined

The majority of people who use drugs and alcohol are able to use very little and can stop without much of an issue.  However, some people develop what is known as a substance use disorder.  A substance use disorder, regardless of the substance, is a precarious pattern of use that eventually leads to an impairment in a person’s ability to function. The American Psychiatric Association states that a substance use disorder is a “complex condition in which there is uncontrolled use of a substance despite harmful consequences.”  

General Symptoms of a Substance Use Disorder

If someone has an alcohol use disorder, for example, it means that they likely use drugs and/or alcohol more than intended, for longer periods of time than intended.  Here are some examples that alcohol abuse is turning into physical dependence:

  • They may want to stop or cut down but have not been able to do so. 
  • They might spend a lot of time in pursuit of alcohol or even trying to recover from drinking too much. 
  • They may develop a craving for alcohol (or their drug of choice).
  • You might start noticing that they no longer go to work consistently, that they do not complete their schoolwork, or that they neglect family obligations. 
  • Even though there is an indication that things are not going so well they continue to use alcohol or another drug of choice. 
  • Important activities generally start becoming less important. 
  • You may notice that they take risks they generally would not take, like drinking and driving. 
  • You might notice that they have started developing physical or psychological problems that might be attributed to their use. 
  • Sometimes you might notice that they appear to have developed a tolerance for their drug of choice, using more and more to get the same effect.

On top of all this, individuals who abuse alcohol and other drugs are likely to experience some form of mental health symptoms, whether they have a pre-existing mental illness or not. Drug abuse problems can have a negative impact on mental health in many ways. In turn, some people may develop an addiction as a result of self-medicating when they start feeling depressed or anxious.

What Withdrawal Symptoms Look Like

Something to be aware of with many substances is that when someone develops a use disorder with cravings and an increase in tolerance is that they may also experience withdrawal symptoms when they try to quit.  These are important symptoms to be aware of as it might give you an indication that your child or loved one is trying to quit a substance they have become addicted to. The following withdrawal criteria was taken from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR).  

People often do not think of marijuana as being addictive but people do develop use disorders with cannabis and can experience withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, anxiety, sleep problems, weight loss, restlessness, depressed mood, and physical discomfort.

All the above symptoms of withdrawal are related to prolonged use of a substance. Children can become dependent on opioids in a week so use extreme caution even in situations where prescriptions are written for a legitimate acute pain syndrome. 

Risks of Serious Withdrawal

Alcohol and sedatives, hypnotics, and anxiolytics all carry a risk of seizures during the withdrawal period. These are substances that have life-threatening risks when someone is in withdrawal. A person trying to stop these substances after prolonged use may need to work with health care providers and a qualified medical team to assist in the acute phase of withdrawal.

Teens and Addiction

Dr. Michelle Maloney, in her podcast episode called The Current State of Teen Addiction, reminds us that we live in a drug culture and unfortunately experimentation is rampant.  All use disorders start with experimentation. Risk factors are related to genetics, social context, psychological characteristics, and stress. The earlier someone starts using the greater the risk of developing a use disorder. Brain changes as a result of using substances at a young age can remain for a long time even after someone has quit. 

Is Addiction a Mental Illness?

There was a time when people who developed a use disorder were considered morally weak or to be suffering from a defect of character.  That thinking has changed and we now know that addiction is an illness.  SAMHSA reports in their recent article “What is Substance Abuse Treatmentthat a use disorder should be thought of as an illness much like asthma, high blood pressure, and diabetes.  These are manageable illnesses but they are illnesses all the same. And when these illnesses are out of control they can have catastrophic effects on a person’s life.  

Signs of Addiction in Teens

It is normal for teens to have mood swings but with a use disorder, they may have mood swings that are out of the ordinary for them.  The people who are closest to the teen, such as family members and friends, are the ones most likely to be able to discern whether their mood swings are “normal” or not.  

Have you noticed any changes in their sleep, physical appearance, or friends?   Have you noticed dilated pupils or nose bleeds?  Sometimes suicidal threats can result from a use disorder when a teen has become very depressed and feels they have lost control of their life.  

If you or someone you love has developed suicidal ideation help is available and you can speak with someone today. Contact 988, the national suicide and crisis lifeline.

Smaller signs that your teen could be using drugs or alcohol could be sudden use of air fresheners, breath mints, bloodshot eyes, and money problems.  Of course, it is normal for a teenager to develop a drive for independence but being gone too long, lack of accountability regarding whereabouts might be a sign that something is not right.  If you are the parent of a teenager who is exhibiting some of this behavior and you feel in your gut that something is not right, you are probably right.

Teen Substance Abuse Statistics

The National Institute on Drug Abuse conducted a national survey and reported late in 2022 that the percentage of teens reporting substance abuse was consistent with 2021.  Self-reported use amongst 8th graders, 10th graders, and 12th graders decreased from 2020 to 2021 essentially returning to pre-pandemic levels.  11% of 8th graders, 21.5 % of 10th graders, and 32% of 12th graders reported illicit drug use.  Teens most commonly report alcohol use, nicotine vaping, and cannabis use.  Though these substances were reported as not increasing between 2021 and 2022 there was a slight increase in “narcotics other than heroin” such as opioid prescription medications like Vicodin and oxycontin.  36% of teens surveyed perceived medications like Vicodin, Oxycontin, and Adderall to be substances of “great risk.”  

Though some of this data is hopeful it is also important to note that there is an increase in overdose deaths among the teen population that is primarily related to fentanyl.  According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the number of overdose deaths has been steadily increasing in recent years, reaching over 90,000 in 2020. There has been an increase in counterfeit medications contaminated with fentanyl. Though drug use is not increasing currently among the teen population it is becoming increasingly dangerous due to fentanyl and the significant risk of overdose.  Nora Volkow MD, Director of The National Institute on Drug Abuse, states that “it is critical to make sure young people have the necessary education to help them avoid the dangers of pills purchased from an unknown source.”

What Can Parents Do?

Despite the fact that nearly 1 in 20 teens still under the care of a parent or legal guardian will require some treatment, many parents will turn the cheek for as long as possible, sometimes enabling their loved one right into the depths of full-blown addiction. As is the case for most progressive diseases, early detection is key. Timely intervention and proficient treatment methods can save both you and your loved one years of misery and fear.

Conceding that your child needs help is incredibly hard. Words like addict and alcoholic have developed an unbelievable stigma, particularly in the midst of an explosive opioid epidemic that is rattling news cycles, hospitals, the Senate floor, and everything in between. No one wants their child branded with these labels, but what every parent needs to know is blissful ignorance is not an option. Sweeping the problem under the rug will not make it go away. Quite the opposite in fact. For those struggling with substance abuse, this is not “just a phase”.

Identifying and Addressing Teenage Drug Addiction 

It is not always easy to identify an addiction in teenagers since they are going through so many changes already. Teenagers should experiment with different ideas and ways of being in the world.  Also, they should experiment with different identities and often this experimentation and the stress of growing up in this overwhelming modern society can unfortunately lead to problems with drugs and alcohol. 

If you are concerned about a teenager you love, don’t wait to get the help you need. If you are ready to take the next step and explore treatment options, reach out to New Life House to learn more about our young adult sober living in Los Angeles. Our program is designed to help adolescents overcome addiction and build amazing lives. Through family therapy, open communication, peer support, and community, those who come to New Life House for help leave with the tools necessary to achieve long-term sobriety.

Last Updated on November 17, 2023


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