Information and Advice for the Loved Ones of Adolescents

Recognizing or addressing a problem can be particularly difficult with teens, because we know most of them will at least experiment with alcohol and drugs, and because, barring an emergency or serious incident, the life consequences generally aren't as real or apparent as they are with adults. Teens may also have the advantage of being able to hide a blossoming problem from those who love them, who may miss or deny the warning signs, or rationalize their behavior as typical for their age. It's also difficult to get kids to admit there's a problem, for fear of embarrassment, losing their friends, or that they'll no longer be able to have fun.

Adolescents are no more immune to substance use disorders than adults. While most teens who experiment won't develop a serious problem, they're all at risk, and some more than others. Like adults, teens with emotional or mental health disorders, learning disorders, social or family problems, a family history of alcoholism and addiction, or who have experienced trauma and abuse have a much greater risk of developing a problem. These risk factors can become more pronounced as they try to adapt to the whirlwind of changes and pressures that accompany the teenage years, which can lead to the discovery of alcohol and drugs as effective coping and self-medicating tools.

Antisocial behavior, high-risk behavior, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, promiscuity, eating disorders, smoking cigarettes, no friends, poor family relations, non-communicative, depression, and extreme sensitivities or insecurities are just some of the ways these high risk factors can manifest themselves, and are warning signs that should be addressed as early as possible.

The best approach to take with a teenager who exhibits warning signs or is suspected to be using drugs or alcohol is to be non-confrontational and gentle. Let them know you're worried about their behavior, or found something that caused you to be suspicious, and they won't be punished for telling the truth. There may be no problem, you just want to help them if there is. Let them know you don't want them to try drugs or alcohol, but if they do and something makes them feel better than they've ever felt before, stop right there. That's a sign they are at great risk of becoming addicted, and there are many other ways to feel good. Get them evaluated for a possible psychiatric disorder they could be self medicating. Look at your own behaviors, especially if you or someone in your family has a substance abuse problem, and let them know this puts them at risk.

If you think your child may have a substance abuse problem, try to get them to meet with a chemical dependency professional who specializes in adolescent care, just to confirm or deny if there is in fact a problem. At the very least they will be able to answer your questions, and offer some professional advice and insight. If your child is unwilling to participate, don't hesitate to go by yourself!

To summarize...

  • Know the risk factors and warning signs
  • Be open and honest with your children about your concerns and fears, your own experiences with alcohol and drugs and the consequences of substance abuse
  • Know your kids as well as you can and what's going on in their lives
  • Be willing to address your own issues that may be affecting them
  • Be non-confrontational and gentle
  • Have your child evaluated for a possible psychiatric condition they could be self-medicating
  • Consult with a chemical dependency professional who specializes in adolescent care
  • Seek professional help and advice for yourself and your family, regardless of whether your child participates