The school holidays are here with us and one of the most common problems that parents deal with during this period is drug and alcohol abuse amongst teens.
Although most of us recognise that teenage substance abuse exists, surveys done amongst parents of teens show that most of them do not believe that their children fall into that category.
Truth is, however, over half of all new drug users worldwide are under the age of 21. This means that there is a very high chance that your child could be experimenting with illegal substances.
Tip: The drug could be in your kitchen/bathroom
Cough and cold syrups/medication
Cough and cold syrups are some of the most commonly abused drugs sold over the counter. When taken at the correct dosages, most cough and cold drugs are not addictive.
However, when taken in large amounts, some of these cough syrups contain compounds that produce ‘mind altering effects’ such as euphoria, dissociative effects (an ‘out of body experience’), excessive sleepiness and even hallucinations.
Since it is socially unacceptable to walk around drinking a bottle of cough syrup, most teens prefer to mix them with soda or juice (this also improves the flavour) and drink them unnoticed. Some of these cough syrups act on the brain in the same way heroin does.
Medication used to manage depression, anxiety and insomnia are some of the most abused prescription drugs on the market. Pain killers containing a group of drugs known as opioids are also very addictive. Most teens gain access to these from their parents’ medicine cabinet.
Unfortunately, in Kenya, we do not have strict laws regarding sale of prescription medicine and most chemists will readily dispense any medication if you either know its name or have an old packet of the drug. This makes it very difficult to contain this type of abuse.
Cleaning substances, beauty products, paint and petroleum
Most of us have seen street children sniffing glue and know that doing so can result in a ‘high’. Truth is, most commercial household and industrial cleaners contain solvents that have the ability to give one an altered mental state if inhaled for prolonged periods.
Beauty products such as nail polish remover and some hair sprays can have this effect as well.
Non-water based paints and petroleum products can give you an altered consciousness if inhaled for prolonged periods.
Tip: Drugs can be incorporated into snacks
A common practice amongst teens and college-aged young adults is to incorporate illegal drugs into cookies and cupcakes or sweets. These drug laden treats are just as addictive as the non-tampered product. Locally, the drug most commonly incorporated into cookies and cakes is marijuana.
Tip: Watch out for marked mood, memory and concentration changes
Teenagers can be a little difficult to relate to—especially because they can have inexplicable mood changes. Most psychologists (and parents) consider this normal. However, if your teen undergoes a complete character change something is definitely wrong. Another indicator of possible drug/alcohol abuse is a lack of concentration and memory loss.
Tip: Watch out for extreme feeding habits
Drugs and alcohol can affect one’s appetite. Some have been known to give a profound sense of hunger and urge to nibble (popularly known as the ‘munchies’) whilst others make you neglect feeding.
Tip: Drop in performance
Although a drop in academic performance is always a red flag, you need to look for changes in performance in other aspects of your child’s life. Refusal to participate in activities around the home/school or sloppy performance in a previously active teen should prompt you to investigate things further.
Tip: Neglect in personal appearance and disturbing physical signs
Teens often go through phases where they change their appearance to either keep up with trends or beliefs. Neglect of personal hygiene is always a red flag. Look out for blood shot eyes, constant fatigue, changes in sleep pattern, laughing unnecessarily etc. These could all be pointers of drug/alcohol abuse. The teen’s clothes may also have scents related to inhaled drugs.
Tip: Loss of interest in hobbies
A sudden complete interest in activities he/she previously loved should always make you enquire further. If your teen was previously keen on sports and no longer cares for it, talk to those in the same team with him/her or the trainer and find out if there is more than meets the eye.
Tip: Avoidance, excuses and lies
Teens abusing drugs/alcohol tend to avoid those around them (especially family members). When they talk to you, they avoid direct eye contact. They are also often very secretive and tend to lie to try and avoid detection of their habit.
Tip: Physical and verbal abuse
It is never normal to be physically and verbally abusive. Listen to younger siblings if they report that the teen has begun abusing them. Look out for abuse against animals. Find out if your teen is getting into altercations with peers outside the home.
Tip: Be careful about your teen’s friend’s parents
There are parents who allow their teens to freely drink alcohol that are in their home. They often extend that ‘courtesy’ to their teen’s friends.
Often, they will not seek your consent and will treat your child like a mature person.
This means that the afternoon visits to this friend’s home could result in a regular drinking habit for your teen.
Casually bring up the topic of alcohol and find out if you are exposing your child to an inappropriate environment.
What do you do if you suspect your teen is abusing alcohol/illegal drugs?
Find out the truth: Directly ask your teen if he/she is using drugs. Be non-confrontational and non-judgmental. If they are afraid of your reaction to their answer, they are likely to lie.
Seek help: You cannot handle teenage drug/alcohol abuse on your own. You need professional help. Look for a counsellor to help you. If your teen is already dependent on drugs/alcohol, you will probably also need a psychiatrist.
Drug tests: If your teen continues to deny substance abuse, there are both blood and urine tests to check for illegal drugs. Some pharmacies stock handy kits that you can use at home (these test urine).
Take care of yourself and your marriage: Teen drug and alcohol abuse can destroy a marriage. This is because couples often blame each other for the perceived ‘failure’ in child upbringing. If you and your partner are constantly at loggerheads, seek marital counselling. This can be from a professional counsellor or from spiritual counsellors. Where possible, use a counsellor who has dealt with couples in your situation.
Rehabilitation: This should be offered to all teens willing to stop their drug/alcohol habit. If your teen is not willing to undergo rehabilitation, continue counselling until he/she is. There are several drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs all over the country. Most run long term programs that will require your teen to be away from you for anything from six months to a year.
Hospital admission: There are, however, cases where teens are involuntarily admitted to health facilities – this is done for those with drug overdoses, drug induced psychosis and cases where there is concern about self- harm (suicidal tendencies).