Imagine that you've prepared breakfast for your child (it's still natural for you to still think of him as a child, even though he's a proper teenager now, dealing with the transition into puberty and all of the trappings that come along with it) before you see him off to the bus that will take him to high school. Normally your teen is a bit sleepy in the morning (totally normal) and perhaps he's even a bit cranky (also totally normal.) But, on this particular day, he seems far more tired than he does on most other mornings, and his eyes appear bloodshot. Sighing, you chock it up to having stayed up too late the night before playing video games (a typical teenage mistake) and make a mental note to make sure he goes to bed earlier this evening. You put a plate of lovingly prepared eggs and toast down on the table next to his orange juice, but your teen, who normally could eat a horse, wants none of it. Refusing to eat and grumbling, he stomps out the door towards the bus stop. You watch him go through the window, a little misty-eyed, thinking "these teenage years sure are tough, but some day it'll be better." But will it?
What you don't see, is that before he reaches the bus stop, your teen has already ingested a drug that will alter his brain chemistry completely, making it far more difficult for him to concentrate, interact socially, and to learn. The vape disguised as a computer jump drive is pressed to his lips and then slipped back into his front pocket far too quickly for anyone at all to realize what just happened. And, this happens all day long at school, meaning that his young brain is awash in chemicals—which affect his ability to concentrate and comprehend--the entire time that he's supposed to be learning. If this scenario is terrifying to you, pay attention.
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If the above scenario seems at all plausible (or perhaps even a bit familiar to you) it's important that you educate yourself on teenage drug use. Would you know if your child was on drugs? Every parent's reaction is to say, "Yes! Of course I would know if my kid was on drugs! What kind of a parent would I be if I didn't notice?" But the truth is that you can be an incredibly diligent, involved parent and still completely miss the signs. Kids are fairly ingenious at hiding substance abuse, and that coupled with the fact that they are usually in school for most of the day away from your watchful eye, provides a perfect opportunity. The key is educating yourself about trends in teen drug use so that you can be ready to spot the signs.
The drugs that kids abuse may not be the ones that first come to mind. While children do get a hold of mainstream illegal drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine, and others, because of their illicit nature they are often far more difficult to get. More often than not, young people tend to abuse drugs that are readily available that we don't often think of. Drugs like glue (which they use by huffing) or other, legal inhalants sold at gas stations (like vape pens.) These sort of inhalants usually act as stimulants at first, followed by (sometimes extreme) confusion. Your child may start to feel dazed, dizzy and have trouble walking, followed by possible headaches, nausea, and possibly vomiting. Users can be moody and aggressive or even think that they see things that are not there.
Children abuse substances for a variety of reasons, some of which are the very same triggers that lead adults to drug use--stress, loneliness, boredom, etc. But children also abuse drugs because of other factors that stem from the often emotional (and sometimes quite volatile) transitional time between childhood and adulthood. Puberty is confusing, scary, stressful, and full of emotional swings. It's the perfect storm and seems uniquely suited to allow drug abuse to rear its ugly head. This volatile time, coupled with social pressures at school, and/or trouble at home, only adds to this unique pressure cooker.
Kids overwhelmingly tend to procure drugs (whether illicit or legal) at school or from peers at other social gatherings. Most teens are in school for at least 7 hours per day, which is 7 hours during which parents are unable to know whom they are socializing with, and what exactly they may be doing. School staff and administrators try their best to monitor students, but especially in schools with a high child-to-teach ratio, it's extremely difficult to give every kid the ideal amount of total supervision. And, the danger only grows when school budgets continue to be cut, and class size continues to rise (meaning teacher-to-student ratios continue to get smaller.)
It's fairly disconcerting to think that your teen could be using harmful substances in your own home, under your careful watch, but the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) warns that teenagers are incredibly adept at hiding drugs. According to the DEA, drugs can be hidden in everything from alarm clocks to shoes to gaming consoles. These aren't place that a normal adult might think to look, so it's incredibly important that parents educate themselves on common hiding places. Other common objects that can be used to conceal drugs include: makeup or personal hygiene containers, books, tampon boxes, garage door openers, mechanical pencils, flashlights, and computer flash drives. Basically any kind of container that might seem like a normal, necessary item for your teen to have is a potential hiding spot! Yes, this makes it nearly impossible to check all potential hiding places, and yes, this is a major cause for concern. How can you combat this danger? By learning the signs of drug abuse.
If you are paying close enough attention, there are usually some early warning signs that kids are using drugs that are fairly obvious, if you know how to look for them.
A child suddenly having a wholly new group of friends all at once can be a telling sign of drug use. Usually it's a fairly sudden shift in friend group, and, pulling away or ignoring old friends can be a sign of drug use as well.
Obviously, if you find drug paraphernalia on your teen or in their room, this is a sure sign that they are abusing substances. Make sure to educate yourself on common drug paraphernalia like bongs, one hitters, vapes, etc.
Teens are known for mood swings so this alone may not be a sign, but coupled with other signs of drug use, this may be telling.
While teens can be cranky, severe shifts and swings into irritability may be an indicator that drugs have been ingested. Even legal drugs (like nicotine vapes) can cause excess irritability.
We know that drugs (both illegal and legal) when ingested can cause a loss of attention span in teenagers. This is concerning because high school is a time when teens are there to learn all they can, and high school is hard enough without having an extra hurdle to overcome.
If your teen is usually a good student and then is experiencing a sudden drop in grades, pay attention. This may well indicate a lack of effort or concentration, which may stem from drug use.
Teens are known to pull away from their parents (this is the natural progression of things) but if the change is extremely sudden, or if you notice them distancing themselves from their normal friends, this may be a sign of drug use.
A teenager's body is in a constant state of morphing, as they transition into an adult. But this doesn't mean that you shouldn't pay attention to their physical appearance. Sudden weight loss, sudden weight gain, etc. can indeed be an indicator and should not be ignored.
The human pupils dilate when a foreign drug stance is acting on the brain. Pay attention to the size of your child's pupils normally and take note if they are enlarged.
Odor on the breath (whether it's the smell of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, etc.) should be paid attention to.
In the short term, drugs may affect your child's mood, weight, ability to focus, and general demeanor. Don't ignore these signs and simply chock them up to puberty. While that may indeed be the cause, try to get into the habit of looking a little bit deeper. Make sure there's an open stream of communication with your child so that it's easy to spot potential drug use right when it begins.
As stated above, an open line of communication is extremely important between parents and teens because it gives parents the opportunity to recognize potential drug use before it gets too far along. While short term substance abuse is definitely disruptive, it's important to recognize drug use early on because long-term substance abuse can have effects that last for the rest of your child's life. Long-term effects of teenage drug use include: stunted learning, major learning disabilities, dropping out of school, pregnancy, a spiral into far harder drug use, and trouble with the law (incarceration.)
Recent studies show that cigarette use among teens has gone down 20-30% since the mid-nineties, which is a major improvement. But unfortunately a new group of drugs is on the rise which may be just as (if not more) harmful: vapes.
Even though they are not able to be legally sold to anyone under the age of 18, a recent study found that 82% of high school seniors report that vaping devices are "easy to get." This is extremely concerning because it means that the legal checks we have as a society to prevent child drug use (like minimum age laws) do not ultimately work. So, parents have to be vigilant.
Vapes are dangerous not only because of the substance they ignite (either tobacco, marijuana, or sometimes a combination of both) but also because they involve other chemicals in the burn process that can do far more damage to lungs, especially those of young people. A 2019 study found a dramatic increase in vaping, which is concerning. Vaping use among teenagers is now second only to alcohol.
Most teens involved in the study report that they vaped to feel included with their peer group, to relax, and/or because it "tastes good." These vapes use flavoring to mask the taste and smell of the actual substance they burn (whether it's a tobacco or a marijuana derivative) and this is part of why they are so incredibly dangerous. They come in candy-like flavors (like cherry, blueberry, cotton candy, etc.) and kids may like the taste so much that they totally forget that they are inhaling a very harmful substance. We know (and so do the giant companies that produce these vapes) that children are incredibly susceptible to sweet flavors, and therein lies why vaping is seeing such a meteoric rise.
If you suspect that your child may be using drugs, you are not alone in this fight. There are multiple resources at your fingertips, both public and private. The most important thing is to try to openly communicate with your child because if you can talk to your teen, and catch it early, you have an excellent chance of stopping the drug use and getting them back onto the correct path.