How do I know if my teenager is an addict?
We usually think of addiction as something extreme; associated with drugs, alcohol or substances, but you can become addicted to many different things.
For many years experts believed that only alcohol and certain drugs could lead to addiction. But recent research suggests that seemingly harmless activities like eating, social media, video games, sex, and even working, can become objects of addiction.
How an addiction is established
Some of us are more prone to addiction than others. Genetics, psychology, upbringing and various factors play a role. The first phase is where your body develops a tolerance and an affinity for that substance.
Let’s take smoking as an example:
- You’ve been having a hard day, so you step outside and light up a cigarette.
- The nicotine reaches your brain in no time and the feel-good hormone, dopamine, floods your brain.
- Soon, smoking becomes associated with pleasure and you find yourself having more smoke breaks throughout the day.
- Your brain records that smoking is enjoyable and helps you to destress. Imagine a little tick-box of approval going off in your brain when you smoke.
- Every time you feel stressed your brain goes back to the tick-box: it remembers how the cigarette released dopamine, and how you felt better. Now it wants you to get it back: addiction is formed.
Why would my teenager use drugs?
Kids don’t just take drugs without reason. They don’t simply fall into addictive behaviour. Just like the example of smoking, teenagers often use drugs to soothe stress, anxiety, or mood-swings. They can also be pressured by their peers into experimenting with substances.
Our teenage years are critical in forming social bonds and establishing our own identity. The approval and support of friends become the main focus of our attention. To keep these friendships and feel ‘with-it’, many teenagers may use substances to feel accepted – even if they don’t necessarily want to.
What signs can I look out for?
- More withdrawn or depressed than usual.
- A loss of motivation
- Outbursts of anger
- Behaving in ways that seem secretive
- Acting out more than usual
- Mood-swings that seem strange
- Disappearing for long periods of time
- Secretive use of their phone
- Avoiding eye-contact
- Irregular sleep-pattern
What can I do as a parent?
It’s important to recognise that your child won’t be using drugs unless there is some other motive: either peer-pressure, curiosity, or as a way to cope with challenging emotions. Bringing understanding into the conversation is key in order to let them know you are on their side. They may already feel conflicted about their use and adding judgement to the equation will just push them away.
Here are some common mistakes to avoid:
- Don’t ignore any mental health challenges.
It cannot be stressed enough: drug-use is often a way of coping with mental health challenges; like anxiety, depression, eating disorders or ADHD. If you suspect drug-use always ask yourself: “Is there perhaps a mental health challenge for which my child needs help?”
- Not being honest about your own drug use
As a parent, you may feel the need to keep up appearances: to pretend that you never had any experimental phases. If you do have any history of drug use – even just substances like cigarettes – it’s useful to tell your child. It’s easier for them to trust you if you’re honest and if you share some of your personal experience. They will feel less judged and more supported.
- Don’t blame yourself or your spouse
It’s hard to shake the guilt we feel as parents. Everything our child does feels like a reflection of our parenting. Don’t let this false guild interfere with your parenting: there is no such thing as a perfect parent. And even the most exemplary parenting doesn’t mean your child won’t use drugs. Instead of focusing on guilt and blame think about how you can work together as a team.
- Don’t confuse intelligence for maturity
The prefrontal cortex in our brain is responsible for judgement and responsibility. This part of the brain doesn’t fully develop until our mid-20s. So, even if your child gets straight A’s and wins every academic competition, their brain can still make big mistakes when it comes to responsibility and maturity. Which means you shouldn’t use the line: “How could you do this? You’re so smart!?” They may be smart, but they’re still young and immature.
- Don’t delay getting help.
It’s hard to admit you have a problem. It may be even harder to admit that your child may have a problem. Thoughts like “What did I do wrong!?” or “It can’t be – she’s such a smart kid!” or “They would never do this to me!” may be crossing your mind. But don’t let your ego, your fear, your guilt, or naivety get in the way. If there is a risk that your child may be using drugs intervention needs to happen sooner, not later.
The road to recovery
Breaking an addiction is tough, but it is possible. There’s no overnight fix, but it is possible. Get ready for a journey that will have a lot of up-hills, but also many opportunities to deepen your relationship. This is not just a downward spiral: it can be a significant opportunity to bring your family closer together.
- Ask for help!
You can find it supportive to spend time with parents who also have child addicts. Your child may also need support, either with a support-group, or in a treatment centre. Create a routine that works for your child where the way the family relates together provides a safe, supportive environment for your child’s recovery.
- Detox first
If your child is addicted, they will first need to get rid of their chemical addiction. This means that rehab may be required. Contact a local drug-rehab clinic to find out about the process
- Therapy is for the family
Since such a big part of addiction comes down to environmental and emotional support, you’ll need to be ready for some family-therapy. Getting the whole family through a counselling process, will give you an opportunity to discover how you can best support your teenager. They will not be able to heal by themselves.
- Creating a safe environment
Your child’s home-environment will be critical for healing. You will need to remove any distracting temptations from your child’s environment: alcohol, pornography, or by locking away medications that your child might get into.
- Celebrate milestones
Once your teenager is on the track of recovery, they will need a lot of encouragement. It may seem easy from outside but achieving sobriety can feel like climbing an internal mountain. Be their cheerleader & supporter, not their judge and jury.
This journey may not be easy; not for you nor your teenager. Whilst the first step is the hardest, there is great support available to live a long, sober life! Don’t delay.