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Substance Abuse: Recognize the Signs


What is drug abuse?

Drug abuse is use of drugs or alcohol that causes problems in the abuser's life. Children who abuse drugs and alcohol are at increased risk of serious drug use later in life. Substance abuse may also cause school failure and poor judgment that puts kids at greater risk for accidents, violence, unplanned and unsafe sex, and suicide.

Children abuse many kinds of drugs, both legal and illegal, including:

  • alcohol
  • heroin and cocaine
  • inhalants (fumes from glue, paint thinner, or lighter fluid)
  • hallucinogens such as LSD
  • man made drugs such as methamphetamine (speed) and Ecstasy
  • marijuana (pot)
  • narcotics (painkillers)
  • nicotine
  • nonprescription cough, cold, sleep, and diet medicines
  • prescription medicines
  • stimulants
  • steroids

Drug abuse can lead to addiction. When a child is addicted, drug use becomes the child's primary focus. Nothing else (health, school, work, or family) matters as much as getting and using drugs.

Some drugs also cause a physical need for the drug and severe withdrawal when the drug is stopped. Withdrawal from narcotics such as heroin and methadone is very painful. Withdrawal from alcohol and other sedative hypnotics can be life-threatening, causing seizures and delirium.

How do I know if my child is abusing alcohol or drugs?

Children who are abusing alcohol or drugs may:

  • be clumsy and have a lot of accidents
  • be unable to concentrate
  • become moody, angry, or worried all the time
  • have headaches, stomach pain, shaking, coughing, slurred speech, staggering, or a constant runny nose
  • have sudden changes in appearance like red or puffy eyes, or rapid weight changes
  • have trouble sleeping or waking up and always seem tired
  • lose interest in activities that used to bring pleasure such as hobbies or sports
  • stop showing interest in school or stop going to school
  • withdraw from friends or start hanging out with kids who use drugs

Some of these warning signs can also be signs of other problems. Your child's healthcare provider should examine the child and ask about symptoms to make sure that there are no physical causes. If the problems are not physical, your child may be referred to a mental health specialist.

What can I do to help my child?

  • Be a good example. Children are much more likely to do what you do rather than what you say.
  • Listen to your children's feelings and concerns, so that they feel comfortable talking with you.
  • Teach children to be confident decision-makers. As children become more skilled at making all kinds of good choices, you will feel more secure in their ability to make the right decision about alcohol and drugs.
  • Teach children to avoid situations where people are likely to use drugs or alcohol.
  • Offer information that fits the child's age and ability to understand. If you are watching TV with your 6 year-old and marijuana is mentioned on a program, you can say, "Do you know what marijuana is? It's a bad drug that can hurt your body." If your child has more questions, answer them. If not, let it go. Short, simple comments repeated often will get the message across. For your 12-year-old, you might explain what Ecstasy and crack look like and how they affect the body.
  • Make your family position on drugs clear. Teach children the difference between drugs that are abused and medicine taken when people are sick.
  • Discuss what makes a good friend. Peer pressure is a big part of why kids get involved with drugs and alcohol. Help your children understand that friends who pressure them to drink or use drugs aren't friends at all. Role-play ways for your child to refuse to go along with friends without becoming a social outcast.
  • Build self-esteem. Children who feel good about themselves are much less likely to turn to illegal substances to get high. Offer lots of praise for any job well done. If you need to criticize your child, talk about the action, not the person. Set aside at least 15 uninterrupted minutes per child per day to talk, play a game, or take a walk together.
  • If you suspect a problem, seek help from your child's healthcare provider, a mental health professional, or local treatment center.

For more information, call the National Institute on Drug Abuse at 301-443-1124 or visit their Web site at http://www.nida.nih.gov.


Developed by RelayHealth.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2011-01-28
Last reviewed: 2010-04-26

This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a health care professional.

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