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Sharp Health News

Recognizing substance use in teens

April 7, 2016

Recognizing substance use in teens

As a parent, you increasingly stand on the sidelines as your child ages and begins to experience the hormonal changes of puberty internally, and the stressors of high school externally. You try to give them advice that can lead to greater independence, while reminding them you are there for them.

Sometimes, the pressure of these changes can lead to your teen experimenting with drugs or alcohol, and you are left wondering what to do.

According to a 2015 survey from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 8.1 percent of eighth-graders, 16.5 percent of 10th-graders and 23.6 percent of 12th-graders used illicit drugs, including marijuana, ecstasy and cocaine.

Mariel Diaz, LCSW, primary therapist with the Changes Program at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital, believes there are many reasons why adolescents turn to using substances.

"The most common reasons are easy access to addictive substances and boredom," she says. "A lesser known reason is to help cope with or self-medicate an undiagnosed mental health condition like depression or anxiety."

According to Diaz, characteristics found in adolescents using substances are:

  • Missing school or declining grades
  • Secretive behavior and lying
  • Stealing — missing money or valuables
  • Mood changes — irritability, agitation, frustration, anger outbursts or tearfulness
  • Withdrawal from participation in hobbies and sports they were once interested in
  • Difficulty sleeping or changes in sleep schedule — up all night or sleeping all day
  • Change in peer group

If you notice your teen exhibiting one more of these behaviors, it can be a difficult issue to address, for both of you. Diaz notes that when a teen, or even an adult, is using substances, they are often in denial and do not see their substance use as a problem.

If you choose to talk to your teen without a professional, she suggests starting the conversation calmly, and being prepared for any reaction.

"Make sure they are not under the influence of drugs or alcohol," she says. "Refrain from judging, labeling or blaming." Using the word "you" can cause defensiveness, while using words like "we," and letting them know how you feel, can help create a more open and equal conversation.

"Clearly state your concern and listen," Diaz says. "If you believe that your teen is using substances, let them know that you will be scheduling an appointment to seek help from a professional."

Diaz reiterates how important it is to seek assistance from a trained mental health professional. "If you are not sure where to start, schedule an appointment with your teen's primary care doctor and ask for referrals for a therapist or psychiatrist," she says.

Another option for treatment is Sharp Mesa Vista, where adolescents facing drug addiction or alcohol use are supported in a therapeutic environment.

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