Factors Related to Substance Abuse in Teens
Our season finale episode (20) was a very special one, not only because it is wrapping up our first season, but because our special guest was my youngest brother, Kevin Egan. Kevin is a licensed drug & alcohol counselor, with extensive experience working with individuals with drug and alcohol abuse. Currently, he is working for the department of human services with individuals of all ages, including teenagers with chemical dependency. My teen co-host Anna and I had a great conversation with him about factors related to substance abuse in teens.
This topic is pretty foreign to many of us, so I started our conversation asking him to explain what the process looks like being admitted into a detox facility as a teenager.
Kevin says that most often when someone goes into a detox facility they are typically signed in by law enforcement, sometimes they come from an emergency room setting. If a parent has a child struggling with drug or alcohol abuse and wants to sign their kid into a detox facility, usually they would need a physician/nurse or law enforcement involved. After they are checked in, they would be given a breathalyzer and a urine test to see what drugs they are on if they didn't already know, then they keep track of them for 72 hours. During that 72 hours they are trying to detox them and potentially perform a chemical dependency assessment (which is usually their ticket in the door to a treatment program). Keeping in mind the individuals being signed in are not just having a couple drinks or smoking a joint, this is people on heroin or methamphetamines or who have heavy alcohol abuse, in need of support with detox symptoms and possibly medication. They would be monitored as they go through withdrawal symptoms based on what substance they have been on, whether it is shakes and sweating, or crawling out of their skin, possible seizures. It can be a very difficult process physically and emotionally.
We want to educate parents and encourage them to open up the lines of communications with their kids. If kids want to try things, they have resources easily available. With the use of the internet and social media, so much is at our fingertips these days, transactions online are pretty easy if you are looking for drugs. You can text, pay through Zelle and then meet in a parking lot within minutes. It is not just happening in the “bad” sections of town.
Anna tells about how she goes to school with kids that have “connections” and can easily text them to get drugs. She reports that they are doing drugs in the high school bathrooms at her school. She has even been approached and offered to buy a vape. From her perspective, it seems that the school will look into it and monitor it for a little while and then it all starts up again. From my perspective, we know that the teachers and the administration often have a lack of resources to man the bathrooms and this stuff can happen. Parents need to be aware and have open communication with their kids about these kinds of things.
Unfortunately, what I see with some parent’s is they think that no matter what they do they are not going to be able to help their kids make better decisions around substances so they say they don't endorse it, but they are also not doing a lot to prevent it. We want parents to know that you can have healthy age appropriate supervision and guide them. Starting out early and not waiting until they are entering high school is important. We can help them make good decisions and be mindful. It is especially important for those families that have a history or alcohol or substance abuse in their family too.
In my experience working with teens, one of the ways they are most likely to get busted is somebody seeing them “using” on social media and it gets back to the parent, or an employer that has minor employees see pictures on social media of them doing something really dangerous and then lets the parent know. That ends up being a primary modality for parents finding out and unfortunately there are parents who will see the picture and they want to believe it is the only time it happened. Chances are if it is on social media, it has happened numerous times. Even with that knowledge, often they will still want to defend their son or daughter, saying “this can’t be the way it happened, they are a good student”, and then give 50 reasons why they couldn’t be the one using. What is more helpful is looking at what led them down that path - friends or groups they belong to, or mental health (anxiety, depression, trauma, family turmoil, divorce, domestic violence), or pressure of school or sports.
These days it is very common for sports to be very competitive and kids are taking their sport to the next level. This stress of the sport itself and/or injuries all takes a toll on their body. Sports injury/surgeries can also lead to kids taking pain medication and down a path that they do not want to go. They start out taking pills for their physical pain and then find some perceived secondary relief from their emotional pain.
Kevin says he sees a lot of kids that get enticed by the pain pills as a relief from their anxiety or are using them as a sleep aid. Some of them report that when they take the pills they feel more comfortable in social situations because they feel less on edge and more likeable. As parents we should understand it only takes one prescription, it can get out of hand and lead them to dependency if they are not being monitored. Parents should be aware of old meds in the medicine cabinet, teens may be curious knowing there are other ways they can be exploring.
Where do parents start?
Having conversations early, understanding kids these days are under a lot of pressure -like constantly feeling pressure around social media to keep that presence and trying to fit in, year round sports, having parents they feel do not understand, kids look for things to soothe themselves.
What are the common themes and variables in teens about their lives where they are turning to substances?
Themes Kevin finds is with kids with domestic violence or drinking happening in their homes. The kids tend to gravitate and find other kids that are going through similar experiences. They are finding a sense of belonging with a the group that can understand what it is like to have parents who were divorced, or alcoholic parents, etc.
I see the same in my work, kids will connect with a certain group of kids (they think they are kids anyway) over the internet and bond over parents being divorced, or having a mean alcoholic dad. As a group, they will ruminate on things that are stressful, who is doing the most twisted thing, “I cut myself today”, “I took three pills out of my moms cabinet”. Almost a glorification of risky behavior and then it keeps building. They get more attention and everyone circles around that kid.
But then the parent will get wind of it and will reduce internet usage, for example. Then all of a sudden this group they are dependent on is cut off from them. They become frantic to get back to that group, “they need me”, they feel that their "friend" will kill themselves if they don’t hear from them. And who knows they are really talking to - it is scary.
Sometimes it simply starts out by playing a video game and related game forums. It can be easy to get taken advantage of - they feel they know these people because they have played video games for hours and hours with them. Kevin has had teens tell him this another avenue for them to obtain substances. They get connected and find people in their area and trust them. It is another area of concern.
Overall, parents get the support you need. It doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. There are various ways to get help for your child based on your situation. Do your homework and don’t give up in looking for the best course of action. It may not need to be something drastic, such as drug treatment facilities. It is understandable to be fearful and want to take an immediate course of action, but be mindful. Talking to an addiction specialist would be helpful to start to get an idea of what is going on and then deciding what the best course of action may be for your child.
If you have questions about your kids substance abuse, there are plenty of community meetings designed for family members that anybody can go to and just ask questions, hear stories, you don't have to participate. It is just a way to get started to see what is going on in that world, what are things to look out for, and get advice about your situation and what is the next step.
In closing it is particularly important to talk with your young kids, to lay the groundwork now earlier rather than later is really helpful!
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