Is My Teen Using Drugs?

In recent years, the average age of the drug abuser has dropped dramatically.  In fact, we’ve seen shocking evidence that drugs are often consumed by children beginning during their   middle school age years.  Yes, times are changing.  The culture has grown tolerant of experimental drug use at a younger age and kids have access to drugs long before they reach puberty.

Every parent wants to guard their children from the insidious destruction drugs unleash.  So, how do you know whether your teen is using drugs?  And if they get caught using drugs, how do you help them get back on the right track?

In today’s brief article, we’ll attempt to answer both of those questions.  Over my years at Heartlight, a therapeutic boarding school for teenagers, I have seen many students come to our program with drug issues.  We have found that drug abuse is always a mask for disguising deeper problems that need to be exposed and dealt with.

Take the Initiative

If you have any suspicion that your son or daughter might be using drugs, don’t be shy about snooping around their bedroom and belongings to find out.  At Heartlight, we use a few different approaches to ensure our kids remain safe.  We do random drug testing and also bring in drug dogs to sniff out backpacks, living quarters and typical hiding places.  But the drug test isn’t the first sign we have that tells us that the teen is using.

Signs of Drug Use

You know your teen better than anyone else, but even so, if your teen is using drugs they will be part of a culture that helps them hide what they are doing.  Lying, hiding and keeping secrets are all part of the game.  They may also be feeling shame over their drug use.  Whatever the case, they are probably working overtime to keep their new habit a secret from you.

One common trick is for teenagers to cover up their drug use by consuming counteractive things.  For instance, some vitamins can fool some drug tests, so if your teen has started some new vitamin or supplement, do your homework and find out whether there’s a tie to drugs.  Or you may pick up an unusual odor on their clothes or be using something obnoxious to mask the smell.  Has your teen started using incense and candles or placed dryer sheets in his clothes?  All of these help a teen veil the obvious scent of drugs.

You might notice a change in your teen’s regular routine.  Has his schoolwork slumped? Has his sleeping pattern changed?  Usually there’s something behind these new behavioral patterns.  Your teen could also exhibit a lack of motivation.  He’s become lazy.  Or he could care less about the things he once enjoyed, like sports, friends or hobbies.

Teens are created to be relational beings.  Most kids don’t do things because of their friends.  They do things with their friends.  So if friends are using, they may give it a shot.  It’s amazing how many kids say they started using when they were at a sleepover at someone’s house.  If your teen has new friends or has shifted away from other friends, you might begin to suspect their motivation.

If your teen begins lying to you, he might be using.  Or it could just be a shift in attitude.  Your teen could show aggression, anger, or have unreasonable mood swings.  If you built a strong relationship and have created reasonable boundaries for the people in your household, then when your teen starts using, or breaks any of these boundaries, he may shift blame to someone else or something else.

Here’s the point.  Even if you have nothing more than a gnawing feeling in your gut, or a parental hunch, I would suggest you  follow your instincts.  If these clues persist, you might start doing random drug tests on your teen.  Maybe not with drug dogs like we use at Heartlight, but they make convenient at-home drug tests (similar to pregnancy tests) that you can administer.  Using them can alienate your teens, but it can hold them accountable.  If you have built the relationship with your teen, the drug tests won’t be punitive.  Instead, it will deter him or her from taking that dangerous step towards drugs.  That’s part of your role as a parent – to build boundaries that your teen is still learning to build on his own.

Not My Kids!

Parents, if you’ve found yourself in this unenviable position of discovering drug use in your child, you may feel like a failure.  Look, don’t waste time beating yourself up.  Instead, try to spend your time in more productive expressions of recovery.  Try to help your teen understand what he or she is trying to anesthetize.  Drugs are just one way to find relief from the pressure they feel.  It’s an escape, like video games, hobbies, sports, or any other getaway.

If you have a solid relationship with your child, it’ll help you when she or he comes home and confesses to a drug problem.  Or you discover their secret.  When the cat’s out of the bag, it’s very important to determine if it’s simple experimentation or a heavy pattern of abuse.  Either way, you’ll want it to stop, but the way you handle it may be different.  If it’s just experimenting, try not to overreact.  If you crush their spirit, your child may not come to you again when life gets difficult and they’ve done something they want to confess.  If your teen comes to you with a heartfelt confession, it’s certainly not the moment to reinforce your standard.  This is when you reinforce the relationship.  You want your children to tell you the truth and come to you.  If it happens again, then you’ve got a problem that requires deeper action.

Obviously, every situation is different.  And as I write these thoughts to you, I realize there’s so much more to be said and much more to be explored.  But I hope some of the things you read in this article will draw you closer to your teen and to help them be all God intended.

As a parent, you want good things for your teen.  We all do.  Your relationship with your son or daughter won’t change because they’re using drugs.  You still want the very best for him or her.  Just as God’s relationship with us remains unconditional, we should also remain in relationship with our teen.  No matter what they’ve done or how bad they’ve blown it, your son or daughter desperately needs you to remain in relationship with them.

I hope you’ll listen to the upcoming radio program on this subject.  The Parenting Today’s Teens weekend broadcast will go deeper into the issues of drug use in teens.  Visit www.parentingtodaysteens.org to find a radio station near you, or to sign up for the podcast.

If you are in the Laredo, Texas area, we will be having a Turbulence Ahead Seminar on Saturday, January 28th in the United Middle School.

Tickets: $10/person and $15/couple. Call 956.726.3899 for more information or to purchase tickets.

If you have any questions about bringing a Turbulence Ahead Seminar to your city, please contact Sam Sheeley in our office at 866-700-3264, or e-mail him at Sam@TurbulenceAhead.org.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, located in East Texas.  Call 903-668-2173.  Visit http://www.heartlightministries.org, or to read other articles by Mark, visit http://www.markgregston.com.


Healing the Wounds Surrounding Cutting

When the pain in life gets too hard, too overwhelming, teens may take it out on themselves with drastic measures.  While many kids will respond with symptoms of low self-esteem, depression, or withdrawing from the family, other teens will try to mask the pain by cutting, a form of self harm.

In my ministry at Heartlight, I have seen dozens of self-inflicted injuries.  Some have used a razors to make slices in their arms.  Others use small pieces of glass or even paper clips to “scratch” themselves.  I’ve seen some rub their skin with an pencil erasure till it bleeds and others use a curling iron to burn themselves.  Whatever method they choose to employ, it’s usually very painful.

Tragically, in our culture today this type of bizarre behavior is no longer a rare occurrence.  While it used to be considered a sign of mental illness, now kids openly talk about it with one another.  For any parent with a child who chooses to inflict this kind of self-pain, the question is obvious:  what can we do about it?  

Causes of Cutting

This world is difficult for our kids.  They are bombarded by so many conflicting messages and pressures that they have a hard time coping with daily life.  And when the anxiety, emotions, and tension go up, teens look for a way out.  When adequate coping skills are absent, Often, that way out is through self-harm.

I’ve always believed that all behavior is goal-oriented.  If they’re doing it, they’re getting something out of it.  What we need to focus on is finding out why the teen is cutting so that we can focus on the real issue.  Teens inflict harm on themselves for a couple of primary reasons.  One is that they are dealing with bigger issues.  The other is to get attention.

Some teens use cutting as a distraction from other problems in life.  They think:  If I cut, I can focus on that greater pain, and the pain I am feeling from another side of life won’t seem as painful.  

Another reason teens cut is to get rid of boredom or create excitement.  Today’s teens are more bored than ever before.  With every kind of technological entertainment at their disposal, they are lost in a state of monotony.  So, kids are really pushing the envelope to create some kind of thrill.  They love an adrenaline rush.  They look around and see what their peers expect of them, and they fall into conformity, even if it’s painful, because they want to be accepted.  They may also try it just to show off or shock somebody.  Cutting is one way they think that they can get the attention and acceptance they crave.

Some teens will cut just because they’re curious to find out how it feels and what the infliction will evoke with their parents and friends.  I’ve noticed that those that show off their markings or scars are usually ones that “show” as a badge or an expression of need for attention.  Those that hide their self harm usually “cut” or “burn” out of escalated emotion, then hide their deeds because they’re embarrassed that they couldn’t adequately “handle” the situation.

Other teens may be using cutting to punish themselves.  They do so to discipline themselves for stupid or foolish decisions, as a way to purge themselves of the feelings of self-contempt.  It can also be a symptomatic sign of mental illness.  This is one reason why it’s so important to understand why your teen is cutting – so that you can address it appropriately and get the help you need.

Intervening

If a teen is cutting for show, they can quit right now.  I’ve always said if you scratch yourself and it hurts, then don’t do it.  Pretty basic stuff.  For example, there have been times when I wanted to smash my fist through a wall out of anger.  And if I did it, I’d feel better.  For a moment.  My hand would be broken, but it felt good to release all that emotion for a minute.  But if a child is cutting because of a deeper issue in their life, you’ll need to address it because no brief exhilaration will ever be enough to disguise their emotional pain.

Parents, if your teen is cutting, don’t panic.  It’s hard to see your child inflicting these injuries on himself, but seek counsel before over- reacting (unless they need medical attention, then get it right away of course).

Take the time to get to the root of the issue.  Don’t pretend like the problem isn’t there, or make light of it.  Find a counselor who has dealt with cutters.  Make sure that you work through the issues with your teen, but be sure to spend time together that’s not focused on the issue, either.  Don’t forget that cutting is indicative of something behind the scenes that you cannot see.  You have to stop the cutting issue, but you also need to address the deeper issue.

Cutting tends to grow into greater problems, and can even become addictive.  This e-newsletter article only serves to introduce you to the basic issues behind cutting.  If you’re in a situation that needs to be addressed right away, I implore you to find professional help.

As an added resource to you, I hope you’ll listen to an upcoming radio program on this subject.  Licensed clinical social worker DeeDee Mayer has seen this damaging behavior in many of her clients and has a lot of good advice and counsel.  You can hear my conversation with DeeDee on the Parenting Today’s Teens weekend broadcast.  We want to help you understand how to help your teen get treatment before the problem grows.

You can also find out more about Heartlight or request the booklet “The Phenomenon of Cutting” at www.parentingtodaysteens.org.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a therapeutic boarding school located in East Texas.  Call 903-668-2173.  Visit http://www.heartlightministries.org, or to read other articles by Mark, visit http://www.markgregston.com.

 


Experimenting With Drugs

prodigalIf you’ve seen an unexplainable or drastic change in your teenager’s honesty, grades, behavior, attentiveness, or friends, it may not be hormones.  It could be that they are experimenting with intoxicating substances that are as close as your kitchen drawer, medicine cabinet or garage.

It used to be that older teens were most susceptible to drug experimentation, but kids today are experimenting earlier and earlier.  In fact, 10 to 14 year-olds are now the most likely to begin experimenting with one intoxicating substance or another.

One fad is a throwback to the 60’s hippie culture, marked by an increased popularity, availability and use of marijuana (pot), as well as the more seriously addicting 60′s drugs like heroin and LSD (acid).  Today’s pot is several times more potent than it was just a few years ago and heroin is even more accessible in some schools today than alcohol.

Illegal drugs get a lot of news coverage, but there are literally thousands of less sinister, but potentially more dangerous, ways for kids to get high, including:  potent concoctions of common household glues, solvents and aerosols, prescription pain medications like Oxycontin and Vicodin, or even some of the plants found in your yard.  Some kids even get a buzz off of massive doses of certain vitamins.

Most teens think they’re invincible, so their drug history is their badge of courage.  They learn about every source of intoxication from the Internet and then try them one after another.  So, they could be experimenting with huffing aerosol propellants, glues, gasoline, or paint.  Or, they could be crushing cold medications and sniffing them like cocaine or guzzling liquid cold medicines.  They could be taking your prescription drugs or taking nothing at all and just playing the “choking game” to get a temporary high from near asphyxiation.  Still others show their courage by experimenting with the harder drugs like ecstasy, crystal meth, crack, cocaine, LSD, or heroin, which are all highly addictive.

When Does It Start?

When I ask kids in our counseling program the age they started experimenting with drugs or alcohol, they usually report it was in the 7th or 8th grade; and some as early as the 5th grade. Most say they were introduced to drugs or alcohol when staying overnight at a friend’s home or other overnight youth event; or, at their friend’s house after school when their parents weren’t home.  Others were introduced to drugs or alcohol when attending parties … usually parties where older teens are present and parents are absent, distracted, or don’t care.

Fact is, parents today who allow their teenagers to stay overnight with friends may be putting their teen in peril.  After the parents are asleep, the kids try to outdo each other in regard to how far they will go, armed with the latest vices from the Internet.  That’s why I recommend putting a stop to slumber parties at age ten.  Stop at age 10 for a couple of years …..slumber parties where the crowd influence is greater than just sleeping at someone’s house.  From then on, the normally innocent agenda of pizza and pillow fights tends to shift to more sinister things these days.

By the time most parents first discover their child is using drugs, the child has usually been involved for several years.  But if parents can be diligent in keeping their kids from experimenting with intoxicating substances before age 14, they’ll be less likely to get started at all, so it’s important to be the most vigilant in the critical tween and early teen years.

The Addicted Teen

There’s obviously a difference between experimenting with drugs and being addicted.  However, experimenting is no less dangerous, since we hear stories every day of deaths of first-time users.  And some drugs are so addictive, that they can lead to a lifetime addiction with their very first use.

There’s nothing more gut-wrenching for a parent than to deal with their teenager’s drug addiction.  Just watch a few episodes of the show “Intervention” on television and you’ll see what dealing with an addict is like.  It’s a constant nightmare, not just for an addict, but for the entire family.  The lying, stealing, fits of anger, run-ins with the law and constant fear that the child will overdose can destroy and bankrupt a family.  And it won’t get better without treatment and ongoing support, sometimes spanning the addict’s entire life.

Sadly, each year more than a million teenagers need to go into substance abuse treatment programs.  And just like alcoholism, many of them will struggle with that addiction throughout their entire life.  That’s why it’s far better for parents to prevent kids from experimenting with drugs early on, before they get a foothold.

Why Do They Experiment?

Kids are usually motivated to experiment with drugs by curiosity and the need to fit in.  They want to try what their friends are trying, and they have a great need to belong.

Some kids experiment because they are seeking relief from anxiety or emotional pain.  In essence they are self-medicating or using drugs or alcohol to cope with the stresses they are feeling.  For instance, many kids use marijuana to reduce their anxiety, but medical studies show that the prolonged use of the drug has the opposite effect, leading to heightened anxiety, depression, nervousness, mental disorders, paranoia and panic attacks.  While some parents diminish the seriousness of use of marijuana, they should pay attention to what the National Institute on Drug Abuse says are the effects of its prolonged use.  They report it can cause, “… impaired attention, memory problems, diminished learning capacity, interference with the formation of memories and the ability to retain knowledge, a general apathy toward life events, poor coordination, diminished interpersonal skills, and poor judgment.”

Sadly, other kids experiment with drugs to tempt their fate.  Teens with more serious emotional and psychological problems turn to dangerous concoctions or massive doses of drugs as a form of “Russian Roulette.”  They reason, “If I die, then so be it.”  Not a week goes by that I don’t receive a message from a parent or grandparent, heartbroken that their teen overdosed and died.

Signs of Drug Use

There are many signs of substance abuse that a parent should watch for, but the only way to know for sure is to take your teenager to get a full-spectrum drug and alcohol test (a test for many types of drugs).  To be sure, have it done professionally by a local lab that processes tests for businesses.  Give your teen little forewarning to prepare for the test, since they can usually find ways on the Internet to falsify the results.

A substance abuse test is warranted if you see any of these signs:

Masking – you notice that they are consuming mega doses of vitamins, teas and herbs in attempt to mask drug use.

Increased lying – not just once or twice, but chronic dishonesty, especially if lying is new for your teen.

Breakdown in normal habits – drastic changes in sleep, appetite, the ability to complete schoolwork, loss of interest in things they once loved, extreme forgetfulness, and marked decrease in hygiene.

An unusual odor on clothes or in the room — frequent use of incense or deodorizers to mask the smell, frequent use of eye drops (to alleviate bloodshot eyes), extended periods locked alone in their room or the bathroom, frequent use of the garage or shed or other vacant buildings.

Change in friends – your teen exchanges healthy friendships for fierce loyalty to questionable people you don’t even know.  They may even run away, or disappear with their new friends for long stretches of time.

Stealing or sudden wealth — shoplifting, credit card abuse, valuables disappearing from the home without explanation.  Or, you may see unexplained money, jewelry, new clothes, or new gadgets from the selling of drugs (even from selling your prescriptions).

Change in schedule – up all night, or up very late at night, sleeps for days, misses work, misses appointments, wants to be on the phone late at night or regularly wants to stay overnight at a friend’s house or out camping.

Aggression, anger, mood swings, disrespect, and blaming – to an unreasonable degree, and directed against you and your family or other authorities.

Drug paraphernalia — pincers or paper clips for smoking, empty or disassembled pen cases for snorting, empty aerosol cans, burnt spoons, homemade pot pipes, steel wool, hypodermic needle parts, unknown prescription bottles, empty liquid cold remedy bottles, cold remedy blister packs, missing glues or solvents, or knives and spoons used for crushing and sniffing pills repeatedly show up in their room.

Dropping grades– lack of care for school, sports or other healthy pursuits.

Drugs May Be the Behavior Issue

It’s easy to identify bad behavior and blame drug use on teenage rebellion, but it could be that drugs are what’s affecting your child’s behavior.  The real dilemma comes from the parent not believing their child might be experimenting with or using drugs in the first place.  This is simply denial.  Until a parent understands the real possibility of drugs use — even if their teen has good Christian friends and is active in church — they won’t be able to get to the root of the problem.

You may not understand the reason your child has chosen drug use as their way to “cope” with some giant in their life, but that’s another matter altogether.  And because it is inconceivable that your child would ever do such a thing, you may fail to consider it, discuss it with him or drug test him to find out.  I’ve found that parents with kids in Christian schools are the least likely to admit their teen has a problem.  After all, they are in a “safe” environment, right?  Wrong!  Kids that have come to our program with drug issues tell me that the drug problem is more prevalent, not less, in the Christian schools they’ve attended than in public schools.

Before Counseling, Get the Drug Use Under Control

Since drug use may be the cause of behavioral issues, all the behavioral counseling in the world will have little positive effect until the drug use is stopped and the lingering effects of the drug are out of the teenager’s system.  Depending on the drug that was used, the after-effects can last several months.  That’s why at Heartlight, we require that kids with known drug dependencies first go through a separate addiction treatment program.  We cannot deal with their inner issues until the drug issues are taken care of.  Likewise, don’t attempt to get counseling for your teen until the drugs are out of their system.  It’s a waste of money and time.  The best plan is to have the two therapies work hand in hand, ensuring that the ongoing support of an Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous program continue in tandem with your teen’s counseling for emotional and behavioral issues.

If your teen is showing any of the signs I’ve already mentioned, I recommend that every few weeks, unannounced, you drug test your teen.  Make it a prerequisite for using the car.  Hold them accountable to the results, just as if a court would hold them accountable if they were on probation.  Test them even when they squeal in protest or appear disappointed that you don’t trust them.  Easy-to-use home drug and alcohol test kits can be bought in almost any drug store that can be used for regular monitoring.  And when you test them, stay in the room.  Don’t trust them to give you a valid sample.  If they are getting caught up in that culture, they’ll also know ways to get around the test and they’ll have no trouble lying to you about it.

Overall, your teenager needs to know you will do everything in your parental power to keep drugs from becoming a part of their history, even if it means putting them in an addiction treatment program or reporting them to the authorities and landing them in jail.  Better a few days in jail and a time on probation where they’ll get tested regularly, than a lifetime in the grip of drugs.

Don’t stick your head in the sand or otherwise pretend that your teen knows better than to try drugs.  If you are dealing with an out of control teen, and there have been no other traumatic events or psychological problems in your child’s life, you are most likely dealing with the effects of drugs or alcohol or other intoxicating substances in one form or another.  The sooner you know what you are dealing with, the better the chance you’ll have for finding the right kind of help for your child.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a therapeutic boarding school located in East Texas. Call 903-668-2173. Visit http://www.heartlightministries.org, or to read other articles by Mark, visit http://www.markgregston.com.