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Substance Abuse: Recognize the Signs

What is substance abuse?

Substance abuse is when your child keeps taking a drug even though it causes a problem such as:

  • Showing up late or missing work or school and not caring about things that used to matter to him
  • Breaking rules or breaking the law
  • Not keeping promises, arguing, or even getting violent with other people
  • Doing things that are dangerous, such as driving while under the influence

Substance abuse puts kids at greater risk for accidents, violence, unplanned and unsafe sex, and suicide. If your child continues to abuse drugs, he can become dependent. When your child is dependent on drugs, he:

  • Needs to use more and more of the drug, or use it more often to get the same effects
  • Loses control, which means he keeps using drugs even though he knows that it is harmful to him or others, or he can't stop using drugs when he tries
  • Crave drugs so much that he spends a lot of time and energy getting drugs, using drugs, and getting over the effects
  • Has withdrawal symptoms when he stops using drugs

Dependence is also called addiction.

There are many kinds of drugs, both legal and illegal, that can be abused:

  • Alcohol
  • Marijuana, heroin, and cocaine
  • Inhalants, which are fumes from glue, paint thinner, or lighter fluid
  • Man made drugs such as methamphetamine, Ecstasy, or LSD
  • Nicotine
  • Nonprescription cough, cold, sleep, and diet medicines
  • Prescription medicines such as steroids, stimulants or narcotic pain medicines

What are signs of abusing alcohol or drugs?

If your child is abusing alcohol or drugs, he or she may:

  • Be clumsy and have a lot of accidents
  • Be unable to pay attention
  • Become moody, angry, or worried all the time
  • Have headaches, stomach pain, shaking, coughing, slurred speech, staggering, or a constant runny nose
  • Have sudden changes in appearance like red or puffy eyes, or rapid weight changes
  • Have trouble sleeping or waking up and always seem tired
  • Lose interest in activities that used to bring pleasure such as hobbies or sports
  • Stop showing interest in school, have a drop in grades, or stop going to school
  • Stop spending time with friends or start hanging out with kids who use drugs

Some of these warning signs of drug or alcohol abuse can also be signs of other problems. Your child's healthcare provider will examine your child and ask about symptoms to find out if there is a physical cause for his symptoms. You child may be treated for physical problems, or referred to a mental health specialist.

Some of these symptoms are normal in teenagers. If you are concerned that your child is using drugs, talk to them.

What can I do to help my child?

  • Teach your child how to make good choices about alcohol and drugs. Teach in a way that fits your child's age and ability to understand.
    • If you are watching TV with your 6-year-old and cocaine is mentioned on a program, you can say, "Do you know what cocaine is? It's a bad drug that can hurt your body." If your child has more questions, answer them. If not, let it go. Short, simple comments, that are repeated often, will get the message across.
    • For your 12-year-old, you might explain what cocaine and crack look like, the different names for cocaine, and how using cocaine will change his or her brain and body. Repeat the message. Talk to your child about drugs whenever you can.
  • Listen to your child's feelings and concerns, so that they feel comfortable talking with you.
  • Make your family position on drugs clear. For example "In our family, we don't use drugs and children are not allowed to drink alcohol." Set a good example. Your child is much more likely to use smoke, drink, or use drugs if you smoke, drink, or use drugs, even if you tell them not to.
  • Talk about what makes a good friend. Peer pressure is a big part of why kids get involved with drugs and alcohol. Help your child understand that friends who pressure them to drink or use drugs aren't friends at all. Role-play ways for your child to say no to drugs, for example:
    • Say, “no, thanks” and walk away.
    • Suggest something else to do, such as go play a video game.
    • Use humor, such as, "No thanks. If I want to fry my brain, I'll get a skillet."
  • Build self-esteem. Children who feel good about themselves are much less likely to turn to drugs. Offer lots of praise for a job well done. If you need to criticize or discipline your child, talk about the action, not the child. For example, instead of saying "you should know better" try saying, "what you're doing is not safe." Set aside time every day to talk, play a game, or take a walk with each of your children.

People and resources in your community that can help you include your healthcare providers, therapists, support groups, mental health centers, and alcohol or substance abuse treatment programs. You may want to contact:

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2013.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2012-05-29
Last reviewed: 2012-05-29
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2013 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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