As a substance abuse counselor, one of the questions I get asked most often by parents is “How do I know if my son or daughter has a problem with drugs or alcohol?” There is no easy answer to this question so I’d like to address some important points for parents to consider when making a decision about whether or not they should seek help for their son or daughter.

Is it just experimentation or is it a more serious issue?

Parents will often say to me, “I experimented with drugs and/or alcohol when I was in high school or college and I turned out alright…I’m sure my son/daughter is just experimenting like I did”. This may or may not be true. The fact of the matter is we really don’t know if it’s just “experimentation” or if a more significant problem will eventually develop. There is no way to know for sure. Certainly, some adolescents and young adults experiment with drugs and/or alcohol and then go on to lead healthy happy productive lives. However, some adolescents and young adults are not so lucky because what sometimes begins as experimentation can slowly develop into a much bigger problem.So when considering whether or not to get help for your son or daughter please know that there is no way to know if your son or daughter’s experimentation will grow into a problem over time.

“We don’t have a problem with drugs and/or alcohol so that means my children won’t either, right?”

Again there is no way to know for certain whether or not anyone will develop a problem with drugs and/or alcohol. It’s important to know that drugs and/or alcohol affects everyone differently. We all have a very different and unique biological make-up. We all metabolize chemicals differently and are affected by said chemicals in different ways. So if mom or dad doesn’t have a problem with alcohol and/or drugs it does not mean your son or daughter will not develop a problem. Another thing to consider is whether or not substance abuse issues run in your family. There is a strong correlation between genetics and the development of a problem with alcohol and/or drugs. If addiction/alcoholism runs in your family your children are more susceptible to developing a problem. One child in a family can experiment with drugs or alcohol in high school and stop using on their own, while another child in the same family can start off experimenting with drugs and alcohol but develop a problem. Addiction does not discriminate either; addiction doesn’t care if you’re young, old, skinny, short, tall, Caucasian, Latino, African American…anyone is capable of developing a problem with drugs and alcohol. It’s also important to consider that addiction does not develop overnight. Generally, addiction is something that develops slowly over time. It can take days, months, or years to develop a problem with drugs and/or alcohol. Therefore, it’s important to take experimentation during adolescence seriously. Experimentation with drugs or alcohol can be a recipe for disaster, especially for someone who has a genetic predisposition to developing an addiction.

What does abuse look like?

As an adolescent substance abuse counselor I have witnessed several behaviors in adolescents when they are abusing substances. Some of those behaviors include:

  • The use of drugs begins to interfere with obligations, such as school, homework/grades, chores/responsibilities at home, etc.
  • Loss of interest in sports or other recreational activities that the adolescent used to enjoy.
  • Change in friends; increased association with peers that also drink and use drugs and decreased association with peers that do not partake in alcohol or drug use.
  • Engaging in risky behaviors; drinking and driving, getting into a car with peers that are under the influence, drinking to the point of vomiting or blacking out, mixing alcohol and drugs, binge use, etc.
  • Consequences as a result of the alcohol and/or drug use: losing friends, getting into trouble at school, having contact with police, losing a job, rocky relationships with family members, lower grades, etc..
  • The adolescent will develop “tolerance”; meaning they will increase their use of the substance over time (initially they smoked one bowl and now they smoke multiple bowls or they started drinking 1-2 beers at a party and now they are drinking 4-5).
  • Repeatedly saying they do not need to use and can quit whenever they want but they never actually do, or if they do stop using, the period of abstinence does not last very long.

Adolescents and risk-taking.

It’s normal, age-appropriate and even healthy for adolescents to engage in risk-taking behaviors. The adolescent brain is still developing which is what causes teens to want to take risks. However, it’s important to encourage teens to engage in positive risk-taking behaviors (asking that girl or boy out on a date, trying out for a sports team or joining a new club, etc). These types of healthy and positive risk-taking behaviors can satisfy that “craving” or “urge” to engage in risk-taking behaviors. While engaging in unhealthy, impulsive and potentially dangerous risk-taking behaviors (drug use, underage sex, unsafe driving practices) should be discouraged. Having a conversation with your teen son or daughter about acceptable vs unacceptable risk-taking behaviors is very important.

“Should I get help for my teen?”

I can’t reiterate enough that there is no way to know 100% whether your son or daughter is experimenting and will eventually stop using substances or if they will go on to develop a problem. Therefore, I always recommend that parents bring their son or daughter in for an evaluation if they suspect or know they are using alcohol and/or drugs. It’s important to consider any adolescent alcohol or drug use as potentially dangerous and risky. The adolescent brain is immature and will continue to develop into the adult years. An introduction of alcohol and/or drugs when the brain is working so hard to fully develop puts a teen at a higher risk of developing an addiction later in life. The earlier parents intervene to put an end to the substance use the better the outcome for the teen’s social, emotional and physical development. Therefore, I would recommend that your bring your son or daughter to allow a professional to help you determine if help is needed and if so, which services would be a good fit.

If you have any questions or concerns about your son or daughter don’t hesitate to contact me (630) 428-7890 ext. 345.