Substance abuse is a common presenting problem in therapy and frequently coexists with depression, anxiety and relational problems. Adolescent substance abuse negatively impacts school functioning, self-esteem, body image, and sexual identity. It also causes damage to the body and brain. The frequency of suicide attempts increases.
It is important for parents to know the differences between adult and adolescent chemical dependency so that the most effective intervention can be made. Adolescents can become psychologically dependent on alcohol and drugs within 6-18 months and experience emotional retardation. Adults may show signs of withdrawal and tolerance but their disease usually progresses over a period of 5-10 years, and emotional retardation is minimal.
Initially, teens may be able to cover up signs of substance use. Beth Polson, in her book "Not My Kid" identifies four stages. In Stage 1 use may only occur when they come in contact with the drug and they may not actually buy it. Tolerance is low and it is easy to get high on a small amount. Outwardly they may continue to look normal, making it hard to catch them.
If teens like the feeling of being high and they experience no negative consequences, they may progress to Stage 2. In this stage they may continue to keep up an outward appearance of normalcy in an attempt to please parents, coaches, and teachers. Teens will begin to seek out drugs and purchase them.
In Stage 3, getting high becomes the most important thing in life. Use is almost daily and usually several times a day. Pleasing parents, teachers and coaches becomes unimportant. Heavier drugs are sought out and stealing, violent behavior, and running away become more common.
Stage 4 is the final stage and it is followed by death. Use is excessive and all the time. Drugs are used to feel normal. Emotional pain is constantly present. Prostitution, sexual identity confusion, and suicide attempts are common.
It is essential that parents are united when it comes to their line on drugs and alcohol. Some parents believe that if a teen drinks at home with them it is okay. Unfortunately this usually has the effect of deleting the parents role as adult in charge.
Many teens I have counseled over the years actually feel betrayed and embarrassed when parents relinquish their authority and try to be their friend. Teens need to hear your opinions and and beliefs. They will incorporate them into their decision making system.
Don't be afraid to set limits and enforce consequences. Teens need an external system of accountability while they train for adulthood.
One common characteristic of families with teen substance abusers is parental substance abuse. Parents need to recognize their own substance abuse patterns and get treatment for themselves when necessary.
Other characteristics of families with teen substance abusers are; criticism, blaming, lack of praise, inconsistent discipline patterns, over-involvement by one parent and permissiveness by the other, denial of child's use, miscarried anger.
Some factors that protect against teen substance abuse are high parental academic expectations, bonding between family members, supportive and structured family environment, clearly delineated expectations and rules, supervision, after school activities, and consistently enforced consequences.
An assessment by a professional who is experienced in treating adolescent chemical dependency is critical. He or she can help determine the level of treatment that is needed. Treatment may be a long process and may require multiple treatment episodes.