The early adolescent years are a time of special vulnerability for later drug use and abuse. It is at this stage in their lives when many adolescents begin to experiment with various “gateway” chemicals that may eventually lead to drug use problems. These “gateway” drugs include alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, and inhalants.
Many parents have a tendency to equate any drug use as a sign of a current or future drug abuse problems; in the vast majority of cases, however, limited episodes of drug use by an adolescent may reflect only a phase of experimentation or exploration. The emotionally healthy adolescent might experiment with recreational drug use but ultimately have the skills, confidence, and self-esteem necessary to cope with problems in life without resorting to drug use.
Research indicates that the average age an individual first consumes an alcoholic drink is between 11 and 13 years. It is also known that parents tend to underestimate their teen’s alcohol consumption by a factor of 10 to 1. By the age of 12, fully one-half of the school children in Canada have already experimented with cigarette smoking. The average age of a beginning smoker is 14.5 years and by the age of 20, 90% of cigarette smokers are addicted to nicotine.
Certain populations of children and adolescents have been found to be more likely to engage in alcohol and drug abuse. These include children who encounter academic problems in the middle to late elementary school grades and adolescents who have lost interest in academic achievement. Other influential factors include low economic status, a lack of religious commitment, low self- esteem, and a dysfunctional family environment.
The initial factor that appears to influence an adolescent’s first experimentation with any drug is curiosity. This may be in response to parental modeling or peer pressure, coupled with the inability of many adolescents to see themselves as vulnerable to the negative effects of alcohol or other drugs. Some then discover that chemicals bring a form of acceptance from other drug-using teens, relief from internal distress, easily obtained pleasure, and the satisfaction of a desire to test oneself through risk-taking behavior.
Obviously, some teens stop at the experimental stage and have no further interest in drug use. Others continue to use for some time and proceed through a continuum of symptoms. By watching for associated signs and symptoms, parents can get an initial indication of the seriousness of the problem. Once past the “exposure” stage, which is primarily marked by experimentation, some advance to the “seeking” stage. A change in friendship patterns, erratic school performance, moodiness, and manipulative behaviors, (all in the service of seeking opportunities to use and hide their drug use) mark this stage.
The next phase is the “preoccupation” stage. The adolescent is now preoccupied with experiencing the pleasurable mood swing and will spend considerable time and energy securing a supply of his or her drug of choice and associating with other users. The adolescent may drop all non-using friends, lose jobs, become involved with legal authorities, engage in confrontations at home and in school, and, possibly, even be expelled from school or simply drop out.
The final phase is the “addiction” stage. The adolescent must now use drugs just to feel normal and may experience physical or mental complications, memory loss, flashbacks, paranoia, anger and possibly alcohol or drug overdoses requiring hospitalization.
It is certainly true that many adolescents who seem depressed, suicidal, confrontative, delinquent, and poorly motivated may have other issues that need to be addressed. But if this is “new” behavior that seems to have no logical basis for occurring, parents should at least consider drug use as a possible factor. If this is the case, parents may wish to seek an evaluation by a doctor or drug abuse counsellor. The earlier the drug issue is addressed, the greater the likelihood that treatment will be effective prior to the adolescent advancing to a higher stage of abuse.
As serious as this issue may be, parents are advised to not “over-react” at any stage. To do so may simply drive the issue underground and create a no-win situation for either party. Remain calm while expressing concern. Offer support, guidance and, above all, endeavor to keep the lines of communication open.