Although parenting is one of the most rewarding jobs, it is also one of the toughest. As your kids grow up the issues that concern you about raising your children change and many parents worry that their youngsters might be tempted to try drugs such as crystal meth. However, it is common to underestimate just how common substance abuse among young people is and how early it starts. You may also think that because your child is not exposed to drugs at home this will protect them from experimentation, so may not feel the need to raise the issue. Indeed, a study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in 2013 found that almost 10% of parents don’t broach the subject of substance misuse with their kids and more than 20% feel that what they say will have little impact on whether their children will choose to experiment(1). As parents you have an influential role though, so informing yourself with the facts about child and teen drug abuse, and how you can protect your kids from substance misuse, is vital no matter how old your children are.
Teenage Drug Abuse
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, use of illicit drugs by teens remains high, owing to the growing popularity of marijuana, which is perceived by many young people as a safe substance. Their figures show that 18% of students in tenth grade and 22% of students in twelfth grade had taken cannabis in the last month, while 6.5% of twelfth graders used the drug daily(2). However, the problem isn’t just limited to marijuana use, with around 8% using the synthetic drug spice and 15% abusing prescription drugs. While use of cocaine is in decline among high school kids, use of hallucinogens like LSD and magic mushrooms, MDMA, methamphetamine and heroin remain fairly steady, though these are typically used by less than 4% of students.
Even though schools are perceived as a safe place for kids, it is important to be aware that despite the strong efforts of educational establishments to keep their premises free from drugs, your children may be exposed to illegal drugs in schools. In fact, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance report highlighted that 22% of children in grades 9 to 12 were offered or sold drugs at school(3).
Pre-teens Are also at Risk of Drug Abuse
While older teens are more likely to take drugs, experimentation isn’t just limited to high school drug use, as Government statistics show children of middle school age are also at risk of drug taking. For instance, the CDC report showed that 8.6% of students had tried marijuana before the age of 13. When ninth graders were questioned about their use of other drugs, 12.9% had previously used prescription items recreationally, 4.6% had tried cocaine, 4.6% had tried hallucinogens, 4% had tried ecstasy and 2.2% had tried crystal meth. As middle school drug use is also an issue this shows how important it is to talk with your kids about the dangers of drugs while they are still at elementary school.
Dangers of Youth Drug Abuse
As in adults, there is always the risk of an overdose and substance abuse can also take its toll on the body, with the chance of damage to their vital organs increasing with long-term use. Young people who misuse drugs not only risk the adverse physical effects of these substances though, as they also risk their mental wellness and face a range of social problems linked to drug taking. As adolescents’ brains are not fully developed, your children are particularly susceptible to the impact that drug abuse can have on their brain, which may produce lasting effects, impacting on judgment, planning and their emotional responses(4). Teens who abuse marijuana are also more likely to suffer from mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, and their risk of developing schizophrenia in later life is greatly increased(5). Teen drug use additionally makes young people vulnerable to the following problems(6):
- Making poor judgments, so teens are more likely to take unnecessary risks such as driving when high or having unprotected sex
- Poor performance at school, which may even result in some kids dropping out of high school
- A greater risk of problem drug use (such as Vicodin dependency and addiction as an adult, if they start taking drugs before the age of 18
Tackling Drug Abuse in Schools
Schools have an important role to play in educating young people about the dangers of substance abuse, which is why they run drug education programs. As the risk of teens taking drugs increases once they reach high school, it is important that schools address the issue during elementary and middle school, as well as during their years in junior high. Although some schools may adopt their own curriculum for drug education, two of the programs for which there is evidence are used nationwide by educational establishments. These are Drug Abuse Resistance Education’s “Keepin’ it REAL” program and the Life Skills Training Program.
Although DARE’s original drug education for youth program, which ran from 1983 to 2009, was the country’s most popular scheme, the program was not effective at reducing rates of teenage drug addiction. However, in recent years revision of the program’s curriculum has led to a much more effective style of delivery, which takes the focus away from fact-intensive lectures and instead uses interactive sessions designed to enhance smart decision making(7). Working in small groups kids learn how they can say no if offered drugs using a range of strategies. The new 10 week program was originally designed for use with seventh grade students, but is now rolled out to those in fifth and sixth grade as well. Research has since shown that participants in the Keepin’ it Real program are less likely to use marijuana and among those already involved in teenage substance abuse, the new DARE program cuts rates of use by 72% more than in kids who don’t take part in the program.
Meanwhile, the Life Skills Training Program (LSTP), which is available for children of elementary, middle and high school age, also aims to look beyond the dangers of substance misuse. Through the program students develop skills to resist peer pressure, enhance their self-esteem and confidence, develop positive coping strategies for issues such as anxiety, and to choose healthy behaviors. Through these substance abuse prevention programs research shows that students are 75% less likely to use marijuana, 68% less likely to use crystal meth and 66% less likely to use a range of other illicit drugs(8).
Talking to Your Kids about Drug Use
When you talk to your children about drug misuse you should check what your kids already know, offer them the facts about drug taking, give your children guidance on how to say “no” if offered drugs and be ready to answer any queries they may have(9). However, you will need to adapt the approach you take depending on their age. You may wonder when the right age to bring up the subject is, but it is never too early to start instilling the good habits that will help to protect them against substance abuse(10).
While preschoolers are too young to appreciate facts about drugs or know the side effects, you can start to teach them skills in decision making and problem solving so that they are well equipped to say “no” when they are older. Letting them make decisions about what they want to wear or play with, helping them come to solutions through play and teaching them how to follow instructions are all useful. Explaining to young children about dangerous substances around the home and that prescription medications can cause harm when taken by someone else is also appropriate at this age.
Once your kids are in kindergarten and until they around third grade, you can start to discuss what drugs are, how anything other than food can harm our bodies and that some people take drugs even though they know these risks. You can also touch on the fact that taking drugs can become a habit that is hard to break. During these years you should encourage your children to take part in healthy behaviors and praise their adoption of good habits.
Between fourth and sixth grade children usually become interested in facts, so you can start to discuss the effects that different drugs have on our brain and body. At this stage your kids should understand both the short and long-term consequences of drug abuse and the effects this can have on their life and others. You should also begin to play out scenarios of what they would do if one of their friends offered them cannabis. As your children gain more independence, show an interest in who they hang out with, where they go and what they get up to, and invite their friends round so you can get to know them.
From seventh to ninth grade your children will go through immense changes in their body, emotions and relationships, and this is the time when they are often tempted to experiment with drugs for the first time, so they need your support and guidance as much as ever. As this is the time when young people start to consider their appearance more, you can discuss the impact that smoking marijuana and abusing other drugs may have on this. However, you should also discuss some of the other dangers of drug abuse relevant to teens, such as the fact that it can impair their social and emotional development, the impact of drug driving, and the potential for addiction to suboxone occur.
By the time your kids are in tenth, eleventh and twelfth grade they may have made the decision on various occasions about whether or not they should take drugs. Continue to talk to your teen about some of the specific effects drug use may have on their lives. Your children like most students in high school are probably keen to think about the future, so discussing the problems that substance misuse may cause for getting into college, securing a good job or being recruited for the military are likely to have an impact. The idea that avoiding drugs like methadone can help to make their community a better place and that they will have more energy to contribute to community activities may also appeal to your teen. Complementing young adults on everything they do well and for the positive choices they make can also help them to stay drug free.
Recognizing Signs of Drug Abuse
Although it is important to talk to your children early about substance misuse, even if you have discussed the subject openly with them it is important to remain vigilant for the signs that they may be taking drugs. This can include changes in their physical and mental health, as well as social signals that they are abusing drugs like xanax to improve their mood(10, 11):
- Altered movement and co-ordination
- Bloodshot eyes
- Significant changes in appetite (Possibly a sign of marijuana use)
- Experiencing mood swings, anxiety, low mood or irritability
- Difficulty sleeping or having more or less energy than usual
- Spending less time with you and their friends
- Giving up interests they previously enjoyed
- Missing school or experiencing a fall in their grades
- Getting into trouble at school or breaking the law
While these signs could all have another possible explanation, it is important you raise your concerns about the changes you have noticed, as if your kids do have a problem with drug abuse, the sooner they seek help for teen rehab the better.
1. Cathy Payne, “Parents can prevent teens’ substance use despite doubts,” USA Today, May 25 2013, accessed October 20 2014
2. “High school and youth trends,” National Institute on Drug Abuse, accessed October 20 2014
3. “Youth risk behavior surveillance – United States, 2013,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed October 20 2014
4. “Effects of tobacco, alcohol and drugs on the developing adolescent brain,” Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, accessed October 20 2014
5. “Adolescents and marijuana,” University of Washington, accessed October 20 2014
6. “Addiction in adolescents,” University of Houston Clear Lake, accessed October 20 2014
7. “The new DARE program – this one works,” Drug Abuse Resistance Education, accessed October 20 2014
8. “Life skills training – top rated substance abuse prevention program,” Botvin Life Skills Training, accessed October 20 2014
9. “Talk to your kids about tobacco, alcohol and drugs,” Health Finder, accessed October 20 2014
10. “Recognizing drug use in adolescents,” Boston University, accessed October 20 2014
11. “Substance abuse/chemical dependence in adolescents,” University of Rochester, accessed October 20 2014
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