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    What Every Parent Should Know About Teen Addiction

    Posted April 11, 2024, 1:00 pm by The Experts at TeenLife
    What Every Parent Needs to Know About Addiction

    Adolescence is a vulnerable period for substance abuse. It's when many young people experiment, form habits, and potentially face negative consequences.

    Research from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration shows that in 2022, of respondents aged 12 and up who participated in the survey:

    • Over 168 million (almost 60%) had used an illicit drug or tobacco products, vaped nicotine, or drunk alcohol in the past month.
    • Over 70 million (nearly 25%) had used illicit drugs in the past year, with marijuana the most popular.
    • Almost 48 million (17%) had a substance abuse disorder, including over 29 million with alcohol use disorder.

    While those statistics are disturbing, there's encouraging news. According to the latest Monitoring the Future survey, illicit drug use among adolescents has continued to decline compared to pre-pandemic levels. Not quite 20% of 10th graders and about 31% of 12th graders reported using drugs in the past year — numbers lower than 2020 figures, a trend that began in 2021.

    But What Leads to Teen Addiction?

    Teen addiction differs from adult addiction. The still-developing adolescent brain often makes teens more susceptible to addiction and risky behaviors. While parents might decry what we see as an evolutionary oversight, there's a good reason for why our brains are wired for risk-taking when we're younger.

    The teen brain prioritizes reward. Areas associated with pleasure and positive reinforcement are fully developed, driving teens to seek enjoyable experiences like food, social interaction, and novelty.

    The prefrontal cortex (which is responsible for impulse control and long-term thinking) doesn't fully develop until our mid-20s. This imbalance makes adolescents more susceptible to the immediate gratification that results from engaging in risky behaviors.

    Drugs exploit the brain's reward system, producing intense pleasure and reinforcing their use. Because they lack the full ability to weigh consequences, teens can easily fall into risky substance use patterns.

    A Gentle Reminder:

    Addiction is a disease, not a moral failing. The opioid epidemic has shed a light on addiction, but many misconceptions persist. Some view addicts as criminals deserving punishment — a perspective rooted in the outdated "moral model" of addiction. This model blames individuals for their choices and ignores biological and genetic factors at play.

    In contrast, the widely accepted "disease model" recognizes addiction as a chronic illness. Similar to other diseases, addiction alters brain chemistry and behavior, making it difficult to resist substance abuse.

    This perspective is backed by research and the medical community. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) classifies compulsive substance use as a mental illness. Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said, "It's time to change how we view addiction, not as a moral failing but as a chronic illness that must be treated with skill, urgency, and compassion."

    Risk Factors Contributing to Addiction

    Certain factors may increase a teen's risk of addiction. A teen with a family member struggling with addiction is at higher risk. Depression, anxiety, or ADHD can increase the likelihood of substance use. Teens struggling with impulse control or who seek out risky experiences are more susceptible.

    Adolescents who've experienced or witnessed traumatic events can try to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. Feeling isolated or lacking confidence can make teens more likely to experiment with drugs.

    Teens with friends who use drugs may feel pressured to conform — and kids who hang out with older, drug-using students are exposed to higher-risk situations. A strong desire for social acceptance can also lead to drug use.

    Remember the undeveloped adolescent brain? Teens tend to feel invulnerable and may underestimate the potential dangers of drug use.

    Warning Signs

    Here are a few warning signs of possible addiction. It's not an exhaustive list — and even if you find yourself nodding about one or two items, not every teen exhibiting them is struggling with addiction. The presence of several signs, especially a significant change from your teen's usual behavior, however, does warrant a conversation and potential professional evaluation.

    Behavioral changes

    • Changes in sleep patterns, whether it's sleeping significantly more or less than usual or challenges falling or staying asleep.
    • Changes in eating habits, like significant loss of appetite or increased food intake, and opting for more unhealthy choices.
    • Increased secrecy and isolation — withdrawing from family and friends, spending more time alone, being more secretive about activities and whereabouts.
    • Deterioration in personal hygiene habits, neglecting appearance or upkeep.
    • Lying about drug use, stealing money or valuables to support a habit.
    • Sudden mood swings, irritability, quicker to become easily frustrated or angry, or expressing increased aggression.
    • Losing interest in hobbies, sports, or activities they used to enjoy.
    • Struggling at school, with falling grades, skipping classes, increased absences, or a loss of interest in schoolwork and friends.
    • Engaging in risky activities they normally would avoid and disregarding personal safety.
    • Getting in trouble with the law, including arrests related to drug use or possession.

    Physical signs

    • Bloodshot eyes, where the whites are red and pupils may be dilated.
    • Physical changes like weight loss or gain, fatigue, pale skin, tremors, or excessive sweating.
    • Unexplained health issues like frequent headaches, stomach problems, changes in sleep patterns, or a weakened immune system.
    • Finding drug paraphernalia like rolling papers, pipes, bongs, syringes, or small baggies.
    • Lingering chemical smells or marijuana odors on clothing or belongings.

    Always pay attention to your instincts. If you're worried about your teen and suspect they have a drug or alcohol problem, trust your guts and address the issue. Talk to your teen openly and honestly about the dangers of drug use.

    Educate yourself about the signs and symptoms of addiction so you're well-informed. And if you suspect your teen is struggling, seek help from a doctor, therapist, or addiction specialist. If you're not sure where to start, ask their doctor or school counselor.

    You Can Make a Difference and Help Your Teen

    Research shows that parental monitoring is the number one way to reduce teen substance use. Know your teen's whereabouts and what they're up to. Get to know their friends. Remove easy access to alcohol and prescription medications. No access means less chance your teen will use them.

    Open communication — even those difficult conversations — is key, too. Talk to your kids about substance use. Invite them to share their perspectives. Discuss your expectations. Use resources from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to guide and help you navigate those conversations.

    Be clear about house rules and the consequences for breaking them. While setting boundaries is uncomfortable for you — and your teen may chafe and try to test them — it's crucial for their safety and wellbeing.

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    Tags: For Parents