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Signs and Symptoms of Adolescent Substance Abuse
Submitted by the USPS Employee Assistance Program
Adolescence is a period of growth and change for everyone. It’s a time when our children prepare to leave the family into which they were born and prepare to create families of their own. Many changes take place during this critical period of growth: physical, emotional and intellectual changes. We see our children grow from childhood to adulthood.
During this period of growth and development, adolescents are confronted with a number of challenges, from developing social skills to defining who they are and who they want to be. They encounter a variety of new individuals and face challenges they may be unprepared to undertake. The result of this growth is change or, hopefully, maturation. It is a time of important decisions, many of which can shape the rest of their lives.
Adolescence also can be a time of challenge for parents. We see our youngsters struggle with changes. Because change is so pervasive and multifaceted, we may be surprised or unprepared for what we witness. Adolescence literally is a life-changing experience for everyone involved. Because such a variety of things change at this time, it sometimes can be difficult to determine whether or not a change is part of the development process. Are per-sonality changes and moodiness part of normal de-velopment or are they part of something else?
Adolescence is a unique time in development where “uniqueness”—the need to differentiate one’s self from others—is precipitously balanced with the need to “fit in” or be just like everyone else. So, while your teenager may be doing things much differently than they did when they were younger, they are secretly desperate to be different, just like everyone else in their generation. Social acceptance—“fitting in”—is potentially the strongest motivator for actions and behaviors during this period.
Substance use or experimentation is the trial use of some type of substance intended to change one’s thoughts or feelings, predictably in a favorable way. Substance abuse is a pattern of chemical use in amounts or in ways that has the potential to cause someone harm. Substance use almost invariably is tied to fitting in to one’s peer group.
Trying to fit in or fear of not fitting in is the most common reason for initial substance use or experimentation. Related to this is peer pressure, knowledge or experience of friends “using” that creates curiosity or pressure to attempt experimentation. Experimentation may lead to regular use which, in turn, may lead to addiction: continued use despite adverse consequences.
There are a number of potential factors that may predispose substance abuse. Common factors likely to increase the potential for substance abuse include stressful early-life stressors, such as physical or sexual abuse, witnessing or being a victim of a traumatic event, genetic vulnerability or predisposition, prenatal exposure to alcohol or drugs, family tension or conflicts, lack of parental supervision or monitoring and parental substance use, along with association with drug-using peers.
The most common gateway drugs are the easiest to obtain with no or few legal consequences—tobacco and alcohol. These drugs are commonly available in society and likely found in the adolescent’s home or the home of a friend. These substances also are the most likely to be obtained without being noticed by an adult. They are legal almost everywhere in the country, provided you are old enough to purchase them. Their use is so pervasive that almost everyone knows someone who drinks or smokes.
The next step in substance abuse progression is another gateway drug that is frequently illegal to use or possess. While many states are moving toward legalizing medical marijuana or limited amounts of recreational marijuana, most states still impose some form of criminal penalty for possession or use. After tobacco and alcohol, marijuana is the most common drug of abuse and is the most frequent illegal drug of first use.
If an adolescent progresses to further drug use, there is a common divergence of drug of choice by age. Younger users tend to gravitate to inhalants, while older users tend to prefer synthetic marijuana, prescription opiates or Adderall. From that point, addiction can progress in any number of ways, depending on cost, availability or preference.
Substance abuse can become apparent in a number of predictable ways. The most common signs of adolescent substance abuse are changes in friends, with this change being an increase in drug-using peers and a decrease in association with non-users (former friends). This often is accompanied by a deterioration in relationships with parents and siblings, including more frequent and hostile conflicts, isolation, lack of communication and increased defiance or breaking of reasonable rules.
There also is a change in preferred activities, with movement away from previously enjoyed activities and gravitation toward activities that provide the opportunity or probability of preferred substance use. Other signs often include a decline in school attendance and performance, changes in eating and sleeping patterns and/or deterioration of personal hygiene or appearance.
Additional indicators of potential substance abuse include increased apathy, lack of self-control, increase in violent or threatening behavior and defiance or disrespectful behavior toward authority figures. Other indicators of a more serious problem may include physical changes such as bloodshot eyes, dilated pupils, unusual or excessive drowsiness, fatigue or lethargy, frequent nosebleeds, shaking or tremors, red/flushed cheeks, frequent or unusual bruising, a frequently runny nose, chronic coughing, sudden weight gain or loss and the choice/wearing of inappropriate clothing.
Missing money or items from the home or evidence of stealing/theft are likely indicators of substance abuse. Also, the possession of drug paraphernalia such as pipes, cigarette lighters, small porcelain bowls, hypodermic needles or small vials also is a sign.
If your child has a substance abuse problem, they are not alone. Statistics indicate that 61.5 percent of high school seniors have used alcohol, almost half of high school seniors have abused some type of drug and over 68 percent of high school seniors do not view marijuana as harmful. Also, 16.5 percent of high school seniors have used prescription medications for uses other than what was intended. Five percent of high school seniors have used LSD, Ecstasy or inhalants.
By 8th grade, 15 percent of children have used marijuana. Almost 8 percent of teenagers use Adderall and nearly 44 percent of high school students know a classmate who sells drugs. Survey results from 2017 reveal that experimentation with substances is trending younger, meaning that younger adolescents are trying more drugs at an earlier age.
If your adolescent has a substance abuse problem, treatment options are readily available. They may include outpatient, individual or group treatment, support groups, including 12-step programs for abusers and their families, and school- or court-related resources. Treatment resources may involve participation with one or more agencies or individuals, may evolve as treatment progresses and often are tailored to meet individual treatment needs. Most are covered by insurance or may be offered at a discounted rate by community agencies.
Resources available to assist with determining whether or not your child has a substance abuse problem include school counselors, primary care physicians and substance abuse counselors. Your EAP counselor also is a valuable resource for assisting with adolescent substance abuse issues and other problems. Please feel free to contact the EAP at 1-800-EAP-4YOU (800-327-4968; TTY: 877-492-7341) or go to www.EAP4YOU.com with any questions or for more information.