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Learning About Drug Problems and Your Teen

What is a drug problem?

Drug problems happen when people use drugs in a way that harms them or causes them to harm others. People can misuse illegal drugs, prescription drugs, or over-the-counter drugs.

Most of the time, a drug problem starts with casual use. You or your teen may not think there will be a problem if the drug is used once or twice. But drug use can become a drug problem and dependency, and it sometimes happens quickly.

Drugs change the brain's structure and how it works. Teens who continue to use drugs may develop a strong need, or craving, for the drug, and it may get harder to say "no" to drug use. Your teen may start to find drugs more fun than anything else. Or your teen may want to stop using drugs but can't. He or she may become dependent on a drug.

If your teen becomes dependent, the drug controls his or her life. Your teen may continue to use the drug even though it can harm relationships, lead to trouble with the law, and/or cause physical problems.

Why do teens use drugs?

Teens may use drugs for many reasons. They may want to:

  • Fit in with friends or certain groups.
  • Feel good.
  • Seem more grown up.
  • Rebel against parents.
  • Escape problems. For example, teens may use drugs to try to:
    • Get rid of the symptoms of mental health problems, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or depression.
    • Ease feelings of insecurity.
    • Forget about physical or sexual abuse.

Why is it important to recognize drug use and deal with it?

Drug use affects the brain and causes change in your teen's alertness, perception, movement, judgment, and attention. These changes may make your teen more likely to:

  • Risk his or her health and life. Drug use is a leading cause of death and injury from car crashes, suicide, violence, and drowning.
  • Have unprotected sex and/or be sexually assaulted. This can lead to pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
  • Be involved in a crime.
  • Have trouble at school or drop out of school.
  • Have health problems because of drug use.

How do you know if your teen is using drugs?

You may worry that your teen is using drugs if he or she becomes withdrawn or negative. But remember that these behaviours are common for teens. Do not accuse your teen unfairly. Try to discover why your teen's behaviour has changed by telling him or her that you are concerned.

Look for a pattern or a number of changes. Your teen may have a drug problem if he or she:

  • Pays less attention to how he or she dresses and looks.
  • Is eating less and losing weight.
  • Has red and glassy eyes and often uses eyedrops.
  • Is doing worse at school or skipping school.
  • Seems to be hiding things from you and acts sneaky.
  • Withdraws from your family and old friends. Your teen may have new friends that he or she doesn't want you to meet.

What can you do to prevent drug use?

  • Be a role model. Your attitude toward drugs is one of the greatest influences on whether your teen will use drugs. Don't use illegal drugs or misuse legal drugs.
  • Learn about drugs. Find out what drugs teens are using and what the signs of using them are. Learn the signs of an overdose and how the drugs can harm your teen's growth and development.
  • Share your beliefs. Teens need to know what you think about important issues, including drugs. Talk with your teen about what drug use does physically and emotionally. If you have a family history of drug use, talk with your teen about his or her increased risk for drug use problems.
  • Stay connected. Set times when the family is expected to be together, such as at mealtimes. Plan family outings or other family-fun activities. Let your teen know that you value him or her and that he or she contributes to the family. Get to know your teen's friends, and know where your teen is at all times. Be awake and talk to your teen when he or she comes home at night.
  • Be fair and consistent. Find a mix between supervising your teen and giving him or her privacy and independence. Set rules, and let your teen know what will happen if he or she breaks them. Always follow through and discipline your teen if he or she breaks the rules. But don't make the consequence too severe for the rule.
  • Encourage activities. Find things your teen likes to do, and keep him or her busy with them. Sports and playing in bands are two examples.

How can you help your teen say "no"

You can teach your teen these ways to say "no" if he or she is offered drugs.

  • Look the person in the eye and say "No thanks." Sometimes that is all you need to do. Say it as many times as you need to. Also ask the person not to ask you again: "I'm cool with my decision, so don't bother me again."
  • Say why you don't want to use drugs. Here are some examples: "I don't like how I act when I'm on drugs," "I like to know what I'm doing," "If my parents find out, they'll take my car away," or "I have to practice with my band tomorrow."
  • Walk out. It's okay to leave a party or group where others are using drugs.
  • Offer another idea. "I'd rather play video games" or "Let's listen to some music." By doing this, you might also prevent your friend from using drugs.
  • Ask for respect. Make it clear that you don't want to use drugs and that continuing to ask you is showing no respect for your opinions. "I don't give you a hard time, so why are you giving me a hard time?"
  • Think ahead. If you think you might go someplace where people are using drugs, don't go. But if you do go, think in advance about what you will do if someone offers you drugs.

How is a drug problem treated?

Treatment for drug problems or dependency usually includes group therapy, one or more types of counselling, and drug education. Sometimes medicines are used to help a teen quit. Teens who are dependent on drugs may need medical treatment and may need to stay in a hospital or treatment centre.

Treatment focuses on more than drugs. It also helps your teen cope with the anger, frustration, sadness, and disappointment that often happen when a person tries to stop using drugs.

Treatment also looks at other parts of your teen's life, like relationships with friends and family, school and work, medical problems, and living situation. It helps you and your teen find and manage problems. Treatment helps your teen take control of life so that he or she doesn't have to depend on drugs.

A drug problem affects the whole family. Family counselling often is part of treatment.

Where can you learn more?

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