Many parents worry about their children experimenting with drugs, but very few parents know the warning signs that could indicate a child is actually abusing or addicted to drugs. It is powerful and important information.
Addiction can ruin a child’s life, and it can also ruin the trust that is so necessary for a family unit to thrive. That’s why early detection and intervention become so vital.
Here are eight major warning signs:
First, there are usually physical clues, such as a change in eating habits and unexplained weight loss or gain. You may notice your child’s inability to sleep or wake up at usual times. There could also be red or watery eyes, pupils larger or smaller than normal, a blank stare or constant sniffing. You might see excessive sweating, tremors or shakes; cold, sweaty palms or shaking hands; nausea or vomiting; extreme hyperactivity or excessive talkativeness. The key is to look for more than one of these signs, and to notice if they persist over time.
Sudden and sustained emotional changes are also warning signs. These could include loss of interest in the family; signs of paranoia, such as being overly secretive or hiding behind locked doors; a general lack of motivation and energy; or chronic dishonesty, moodiness, irritability or nervousness.
Another sign is a pattern of change in school attendance or grades. Schools sometimes use automated phone messages to inform parents of an issue, but young people can delete the message before a parent can hear it. Talk to school officials directly if you suspect truancy or tardiness is becoming an issue.
If you see several instances of your child having unaccountable money or unexplained loss of money, that could be another warning sign. Drug users can become drug dealers to make the needed money. Or a user could start stealing from parents or siblings to support the drug use. Watch for lies like “I’m just holding this money for a friend,” or “I lost the money you gave me.” Check debit card statements.
Another warning sign could be a dramatic change in friendships. If a child is abusing alcohol or drugs, it’s common to have old friends drop away and new friends enter the scene. Or a child could suddenly have multiple sets of friends. At the same time, children might become ultra-secretive about their cell phones.
Depression or other uncharacteristic changes in mood or personality can also be signs of addiction. Depression can arise from many other causes as well, so if it persists it is best to seek professional advice.
If you notice prescription drugs missing from your medicine cabinet, that could be another alert. Young people with drug problems will often search the medicine cabinet at home, or while at relatives’ homes, with friends or even while babysitting.
Finally, parents should look for deterioration in a child’s appearance. Addicted young people pay less attention to how they look and to their hygiene. Lack of sleep can make them look especially drawn or tired.
Dr. Leslie Adair, director of mental health and family services at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s Adolescent and Young Adult Services program, offers this advice about trusting your own instincts: “Parents are usually the first to sense a problem, even if they don’t know what it is.”
The important point, if you have concerns, is to talk to a professional who can help determine whether your child’s actions indicate that further assessment is needed. It can be tempting to hope the problem will take care of itself as a child matures, but when it comes to drug abuse, the earlier the intervention the more likely the outcome will be positive.
— Bill Cirone is Santa Barbara County’s superintendent of schools. The opinions expressed are his own.