Fall 2012
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Risky Business

Signs and Symptoms of Substance Abuse


Kids may experiment with drugs for many different reasons, but it's not "kids just being kids."

They may use drugs because they are curious. They may be trying to have a good time, want to relieve stress or anxiety or improve athletic performance. Or because they've seen their friends or older siblings do drugs.

Yet this risky behavior, whether alcohol, recreational or "street" drugs, can lead to serious health problems and even death.

"While experimenting with drugs doesn't automatically lead to drug abuse, early use is a risk factor for developing more serious drug abuse and addiction," said Sally Freeman, MSN, RN, NCSN, director of Children's/AISD Student Health Services.

"In Central Texas, most instances of suspected substance abuse occur at the high school level, but we have seen it in younger children, particularly those with older siblings whom they've watched using drugs," Freeman added.

Today's packaging also can be deceiving and kid-friendly, looking like oversize boxes of sweet tart candy or vitamin packs from convenience stores.

"It's important for parents to stay vigilant," Freeman said. "Know your children's friends, activities and regular school habits. The most important thing you can do is take an active role in their lives."

Common warning signs of substance abuse may include:

  • Bloodshot eyes or pupils larger or smaller than normal. Kids may try to use eye drops to mask these signs.
  • Changes in appetite or sleep patterns. Sudden weight loss or gain.
  • Mood swings. Unexplained change in personality or attitude.
  • Sudden outbursts. Acting unusually isolated, withdrawn, angry or depressed.
  • Differences at school. Skipping class, plummeting grades or suddenly getting into trouble.
  • Changing friends. Dropping one group of friends for another is not uncommon.
  • Keeping secrets. Being secretive about the new peer group and/or sneaking around.
  • Disinterest in previous hobbies. Dishonest about new interests and activities.
  • Unusual privacy demands and locking doors all the time.
  • Sudden need for money.
  • Missing prescriptions.

What should you do if you suspect your child is using drugs?

When parents or caregivers discover their teen is using drugs, feelings of fear, anger and/or confusion are not uncommon. However, it is important to confront your teen, but remain calm when discussing this issue with your child. Have the discussion only when you and your child are not under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Express your concern and be very clear that you're concerned because you love your child. Even though your teen has made a bad decision, he or she should feel support so he or she can change their behavior.

Parents should take these steps:

Talk to your doctor. Make sure there are not adverse health issues and, if there are, that they are addressed. Your physician can also make recommendations about where to get the help your child needs.

Talk to your child. Drug use can stem from other issues in your child's life. Has your child mentioned problems at school, such as bullying or fitting in? Has there been a major change, like a divorce in the family or a move that is causing anxiety? Find out and discuss the issue. Get professional help, if needed.

Implement rules and consequences. Your teen should understand that using drugs results in specific consequences. However, do not make empty threats or create rules that you will not enforce. Make sure your spouse and any other caregivers are on board. Everyone should agree with the rules and be prepared to enforce them.

Supervise your child's activity. Set limitations on where your child goes and who he or she hangs out with. Experts say it is OK to check periodically for drugs. Look at potential hiding places, such as backpacks, bureau drawers under clothing, on a shelf, in DVD cases or make-up cases. Explain to your child that this consequence is a result of the behavior.

Encourage positive activities. Help your child find healthy hobbies or activities, such as team sports, after-school clubs or a welcoming church youth group.

Where can you go for help?

  • School nurse
  • School counselor
  • Family physician

You can also call 800-662-HELP in the U.S. to get a free referral helpline from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Risky Business: Signs and Symptoms of Substance Abuse

Good Health for Kids is produced by Dell Children's Medical Center of Central Texas.