Children and Addiction
Unfortunately, young people can be especially vulnerable to addiction, as they are less experienced and more prone to societal pressures. Whether they get access to alcohol or drugs in the home or fall in with the wrong group of friends, the opportunities for children to be offered substances or be in an environment where substance abuse occurs are significant.
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Children Affected by Addiction Issues
Addiction is a chronic disease affected by genetics, environment, life experiences, and brain circuits. People suffering from addiction will engage in compulsive behaviors or use substances and persist despite damaging consequences.
While addiction is treatable, many addicts successfully hide their substance abuse, making it difficult to catch early if loved ones don’t know the signs. In addition, addiction directly affects behavior, so it’s common for addicts to become defensive and argumentative when confronted about their substance abuse.
These adverse reactions are sometimes not intentional and are knee-jerk reactions to protect themselves against judgment and the loss of freedom to continue using. Such behavior may be even more severe in children and teens in the early stages of emotional development.
Risk Factors for the Development of Addictions in Children
From birth to the late 20s, human brains and bodies continue to grow and develop. Internally, significant changes occur on a physical and mental level through adolescence. Therefore, it’s not surprising that the introduction of and dependence on substances can seriously disrupt this growth and cause damage.
The risk factors present for children with addiction can be dire, so it’s vital to be aware of these hazards. This section will discuss the risks and factors to consider if you suspect your child is abusing substances.
According to the National Institute for Mental Health, about half of individuals who experience a substance use disorder during their lives will also experience a co-occurring mental disorder and vice versa. As mental illness can present itself in adolescence, it’s crucial to be aware of co-occurring disorders to treat each individually.
In addition, according to data gathered by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), drug use typically starts in adolescence, a period when the first signs of mental illness commonly appear.
However, as mentioned previously, essential functions in the brain continue developing until the mid to late 20s. Because of this ongoing development, adolescents don’t yet have control over executive functions like decision-making and impulse control, which can worsen their substance abuse.
Co-occurring disorders are mental illnesses that coincide with substance use disorders. Comorbidity is another term often used, although it typically describes neurological or physical illnesses present with addiction.
The National Institute for Mental Health found the most common co-occurring disorders include:
- Anxiety disorders
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Bipolar disorder
- Personality disorders
Based on research from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), over 60% of adolescents in community-based treatment programs for substance use disorder also meet diagnostic criteria for another mental illness.
This surprising percentage highlights the importance of early diagnosis, as research has shown that catching mental illness earlier may decrease the likelihood of future substance use disorder co-occurring.
Early education is critical if there is a history of addiction in the family. While having a genetic predisposition to addiction can put someone at higher risk of becoming addicted, this doesn’t guarantee they will develop an alcohol or drug addiction.
Parental addiction can also majorly impact whether or not children end up abusing alcohol or drugs. According to NIDA, children of addicts are at a greater risk of developing a substance abuse issue, especially when they live with the addicted parent or caregiver.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), 1 in 8 children lives in a home with at least one adult with a substance use disorder.
Many parents worry about their children falling in with the “wrong crowd” or giving in to peer pressure. Because their impulse control and judgment are not fully developed, you should be aware of the types of people your child is listening to or even admiring.
According to NIDA, children often give in to peer pressure due to a desire to impress their peers. If the child is exposed to drugs and alcohol through a parent or admired peer, they may feel tempted to try the substance to feel older or cooler.
Being aware of who your children are spending time with and reinforcing the dangers of substances when exposed to them through outside influences is the first and best line of defense.
Drug Use and Addiction Statistics in Children
Many addiction studies center on adult substance abuse and child neglect. Fortunately, more research is identifying what ages children begin taking substances to understand the reality of alcohol and drug use in minors.
Adolescents (Children 12 and Under)
While alcohol and drug addiction in children under age 12 are relatively rare, it still happens.
- According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, some children are already abusing drugs by age 12 or 13, which indicates some may begin even earlier.
- Based on data from the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, 21.3% of 8th graders have tried illicit drugs at least once.
- Early abuse includes drugs like tobacco, alcohol, inhalants, marijuana, and psychotherapeutic medications like benzodiazepines, stimulants, and sedatives.
Underage Teens (Children 13 to 17)
As children develop into teenagers, societal pressures increase, and they are more likely to be exposed to substances. Some teens may be tempted to act older than they are, whether through peers or media, or may even use substances to cope with trauma or undiagnosed issues.
- In 2011, the WHO (World Health Organization), UNESCO, and UNICEF indicated an evident rise in the number of high school students (from 14 to 18) who had consumed drugs, where 9.5 percent of youths claimed to have used drugs in 2007.
- Meanwhile, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, an estimated 20 million Americans aged 12 or older (8% of the population) have used an illegal drug in the past 30 days.
- While young people don’t drink as often as adults, they consume over 90% of their alcoholic beverages through binge drinking.
Talking to Your Kids About Drugs and Alcohol
The good news is that talking to your children about drugs and alcohol in an honest, loving way can help. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence shows that kids who learn about the risks of alcohol and drugs from their parents are up to 50% less likely to use.
Many parents struggle to know where to begin and avoid the topic altogether out of awkwardness. Unfortunately, the lack of clarity and education can leave children woefully misinformed and put them in real peril later. However, some ways to open the discussion feel more comfortable and natural.
Prevention Starts With a Conversation
While some parents may feel their child is too young to learn about drugs and alcohol, waiting until a certain age can do more harm. Many prevention programs begin as early as preschool, with age-appropriate conversations about drugs and alcohol. It’s never too early to start talking to your child about substance abuse.
Small children can quickly learn about substances from frequent advertisements or overhearing conversations. Learning the truth about drugs and alcohol from a responsible parent is always preferable to an unreliable, potentially predatory source like a commercial.
Starting the conversation early also destigmatizes these discussions in your household. If your child understands that it’s okay to have honest discussions about substances early on, they’re more likely to come to you in the future if they’re being pressured by friends or have begun using and need help.
It’s a Discussion, Not a Lecture
Many parents today will remember the anti-drug commercials and ad campaigns that filled media and anti-drug speakers who gave school talks. These lectures aren’t as effective in the home, as they often come across as preachy and are more likely to earn an eye roll.
Instead, turn these teaching moments into open discussions where you welcome questions in a safe, shame-free environment. Ensuring you have a non-emotional, informative approach will increase your kid’s likelihood of actually listening rather than tuning you out.
Create a Zone of Trust
Because young brains are still developing, the fear of getting in trouble or losing privileges can impact their judgment. If your child feels they can’t come to you with complex subjects, it will be much harder to address substance abuse in the future.
As mentioned before, creating an open environment that destigmatizes discussions about drugs and alcohol is essential. If your child knows they can talk to you about substance abuse without getting yelled at, they are more likely to come to you if they make a mistake.
Handle Problems With Love and Grace
Discovering your child is using drugs or alcohol can be incredibly upsetting, especially if they’ve been hiding it for some time. While you have every right to be upset, it’s important to remember that flying off the handle seldom resolves issues. Blowing up at them is more likely to start an argument and unintentionally teach them that their struggles are only deserving of punishment.
That isn’t to say you shouldn’t discipline your child, but remember that your child is not trying to hurt you intentionally. Instead, they struggle and need your help, love, and support.
Find ways to set boundaries and discipline their behavior in a fair and supportive way. The bottom line is that you love and want the best for them, and if you lead with that love, you can set your child up for success from the beginning.
Is My Child Abusing Drugs?
Adolescence and puberty can be turbulent for children, making it challenging to notice changes that could indicate substance abuse.
Many symptoms overlap—mood swings are common during puberty but can also indicate addiction. This distinction is necessary, as accusing your child of abuse that isn’t taking place can be just as damaging. You should also consider other elements (e.g., puberty, changing schools, etc.) when taking note of behavioral changes.
The following section will outline the most common warning signs when children abuse drugs and alcohol, but this is not a definitive list.
Physical Warning Signs of Drug Abuse
Common physical warning signs of substance abuse or addiction may include:
- Lack of hygiene—not taking showers, changing clothes, or brushing their teeth
- Memory lapses and poor concentration
- Lack of coordination or slurred speech
- Unexplained weight loss
- Red or watery eyes, pupils larger or smaller than normal, blank stare
- Sniffing constantly
- Excessive sweating, tremors, or shakes
- Cold, sweaty palms or shaking hands
- Unexplained nausea or vomiting
Behavioral Warning Signs
Common behavioral warning signs of substance abuse or addiction may include:
- Sudden and sustained emotional changes
- Chronic lying
- Missing important appointments
- Losing interest in favorite things
- Being tired and sad
- Extreme changes in eating habits
- Being very energetic, talking fast, or saying things that don’t make sense
Other Warning Signs of Addiction
Additional warning signs of substance abuse or addiction may include:
- Dramatic changes in friendships or having a sudden new friend group
- Having problems at school—missing class, getting bad grades
- Having issues in personal or family relationships
- Asking for money or stealing money
Drugs and Paraphernalia
Locating and identifying drug paraphernalia is critical in determining if your child is abusing substances. Some items may look like everyday objects, and others may be obvious.
Some common examples of drug paraphernalia include:
- Loose pills
- Pipes (metal, wooden, acrylic, glass, stone, plastic, or ceramic)
- Water pipes
- Roach clips
- Miniature spoons
- Chillums (cone-shaped marijuana/hash pipes)
- Cigarette papers
Behavioral Addiction in Children
While the main focus here has been on drugs and alcohol, these are not the only addictions children face. Behavioral addictions function similarly to substance addictions by activating specific brain transmitters.
Common behavioral addictions in children include:
- Gaming addiction
- Internet addiction
- Social media addiction
- Food addiction
These issues can also co-occur with other substance issues and mental illnesses. Although they don’t have the same risk of physical dependence as drugs and alcohol, the same adverse mental effects can occur.
Addiction Treatment for Children
Treatment options available for children and teens struggling with addiction are similar to those for adults—medical detox, inpatient rehab, outpatient rehab, and psychotherapy. There also may be programs in your area specifically targeted at younger addicts, so don’t hesitate to ask a medical professional if those options are available.
Medical detox is crucial if your child has been taking certain substances that need to be flushed from their system before treatment can begin. During detox, a licensed medical professional will monitor your child’s vitals over a while or wean them off the drugs through a process known as tapering.
Some substances can include uncomfortable or dangerous side effects when stopped, so detoxing in a medically controlled environment can ensure your child’s safety.
Inpatient programs involve the child living at a treatment facility for a certain amount of time, receiving one-on-one and group therapy, and participating in controlled activities. This option may be ideal because it puts the child in a controlled environment without access to substances.
Outpatient programs typically come in two approaches—Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOP) and Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHP). In an IOP, your child still lives at home but comes to the treatment center for a certain amount of hours a week, where they will receive individual and group therapy, as well as life skills practice and medication management if needed.
On the other hand, a PHP gives your child access to the more intensive offerings of an inpatient program but without a considerable time commitment. PHPs are generally considered a step up from IOPs regarding the level of care. Your child will have access to the same treatments and more involved services like medical detox but can still go home at the end of the day.
Your primary healthcare provider or an addiction counselor can help you determine which level of rehab is the best fit for your child and their situation.
Additional Approaches to Addiction Treatment in Children
Aside from the treatment options previously discussed, other measures may help treat your child’s substance abuse. Removing your child from that friend group and even changing schools may be essential if their friends are also engaging in substance abuse. Monitoring and limiting their internet and phone usage may also be necessary.
Other options may include:
- A sober companion: This trained professional listens to your child’s concerns, provides healthy companionship, formulates sober-minded plans, and provides feedback on their progress.
- Ongoing therapy: Therapy can help your child improve their mental and behavioral health. A therapist can allow your child to build important skills, such as improving confidence, increasing self-control, and learning healthy ways to practice self-care to enhance their overall well-being.
Getting Help for Your Child’s Drug Use
Finding treatment for your child’s substance abuse is never easy, but thankfully there are tools available to help you find the best options for a life free of substance abuse. SAMHSA’s online treatment locator is a fantastic tool at https://findtreatment.gov or by calling 1-800-662-4357.
You can also speak with your child’s pediatrician or community addiction center to see the available treatment options. You are not alone in this fight for your child’s sobriety, so don’t hesitate to reach out to these resources. They can help you locate the best treatment centers for your child and also help with insurance questions.
FAQs About Children and Addiction
What causes addiction in children?
Often children will engage in substances to fit in and impress their peers. They may also use drugs and alcohol to cope with stress or trauma. Others may pursue substances to experiment or thrill-seek.
Understanding these motivations is essential when considering the best treatment, as the underlying cause should always be considered and treated.
How do you know if your child has an addiction?
Look for physical and behavioral warning signs, and consider the people in your child’s friend group. Some indicators of substance abuse include:
- Slurred speech
- Impaired coordination
- Poor hygiene
- Extreme mood swings
- Sudden changes in their friend group
- Poor school performance
How is addiction defined?
Standard indicators of addiction include physical dependence and compulsive substance use regardless of negative consequences.
Substance abuse is hazardous for children because their brains are still in critical stages of development and can experience severe damage from substance abuse.
What are the consequences of addiction in child?
Drug and alcohol use can interfere with developmental processes occurring in the brain, primarily affecting their decision-making. Substance use makes them more susceptible to risk-taking behavior, such as unsafe sex and dangerous driving.
In addition, using substances from a young age can contribute to adult health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and sleep disorders.
How do you treat addiction in children?
Several treatment options are available to children, including medical detox, inpatient rehab, outpatient rehab, and psychotherapy. A licensed physician can evaluate your child’s situation and give you the best recommendation of treatment options.
How can you help your child overcome addiction?
Support and love are key to addressing your child’s addiction.
While putting them in treatment can be difficult and sometimes even damaging to your relationship, operating from a place of love and reminding them of this is essential through every stage of recovery. Showing your child that you’re not the bad guy and genuinely want the best for them is a healthy approach to have with them.