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Substance Abuse Disorders

Substance abuse is a growing concern for parents, especially for parents of teenagers. Abusing controlled substances can cause significant and lasting damage to growing bodies and brains. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that pediatricians and other primary care providers screen for substance abuse as early as nine years old.

What are substance abuse disorders?

Substance abuse – also known as drug abuse – is when someone uses drugs either for recreation/pleasure or to cope with stressors in life. Drug use, even if it does not lead to abuse or addiction, is dangerous, especially for children and teens. It can affect their mental health (exacerbating conditions such as depression or anxiety) and physical health.

Many people associate drug abuse with illicit drugs such as methamphetamine or cocaine, but drug abuse happens more commonly with drugs such as tobacco (as in cigarettes), alcohol and marijuana. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), these three are the most common types substances included in substance abuse among children and teens.

It’s also important to understand that prescription drugs can also be the source of a person’s substance abuse problems. Nicotine, a controlled substance, is also a growing threat to many children and teens, as it is commonly used in vaping devices. Controlled substances like these can impact a child’s growing brain, causes issues with mood and learning, in addition to lung and heart risks. Children and teens who have a substance abuse disorder may also engage in other risky behaviors which can impact their health and overall well-being.

What are the symptoms of a substance abuse disorder?

There are several signs and symptoms parents and others can watch out for if concerned about a substance abuse issue:

  • Withdrawing from friends or activities they previously enjoyed
  • Depression, anger or irritability
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Behavioral issues at home or at school, potentially leading to disciplinary action
  • Presence of drugs or drug paraphernalia
  • Physical changes (rapid weight loss, bloodshot eyes or dilated or constricted pupils)

Treatment for substance abuse disorders

There is no one cause for someone to begin abusing drugs, but there are several factors that can play a part in increasing one’s risk, including:

  • Family history of substance abuse
  • Family history of abuse or neglect
  • Family changes or conflict at home
  • Family history or personal history of mental illness
  • Lack of disciplinary structure at home, or overbearingly strict discipline at home
  • Peer pressure

Preventing substance abuse disorders

While there is no sure-fire way to prevent a child or teen from developing a substance abuse disorder, there are many ways you as a parent or responsible adult can help reduce the risk or intervene.

Providing structure, routine and dependability in a child’s life can help them weather the ups and downs and challenges that come with growing up. By knowing they have a caring adult who is willing to listen, you may be able to prevent a child or teen from turning to risky behaviors for recognition. Additionally, providing education about substance use and the dangers of substance use and addiction are an important part of prevention. Schools, healthcare providers, and local youth organizations often have readily available and free educational resources for children and teens.

If you suspect your child is developing or has developed a substance abuse disorder, it’s critical to seek treatment from a licensed healthcare professional right away. Early detection and intervention is vital to the success of a treatment program; the deeper a substance abuse disorder becomes, the more difficult it is to change the behavior.

The first step is seeking an evaluation from a licensed healthcare provider. They can determine the source and scope of a child’s substance abuse disorder and work with them and their family to determine the best course of treatment. A treatment plan might include therapy on an individual and/or family basis, and medication.