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Addiction in Children: Are There Early Warning Signs?

Children are the special gifts that we bring into the world that give us hope. We nurture and care for them from the time we learn the mother is expecting until the day we leave this world. We make sure they have healthy food, plenty of exercise, stimulating activities, and a good education. 

We meet their friends as they grow up and watch them interact with our children. The older they become and maybe go away to school, it becomes more difficult to keep an eye on them. The one prevailing thought that never seems to diminish is what might happen to them that we can’t control.

These days, it is easy for children to get their first taste of alcohol, smoke their first cigarette, or try a bit of marijuana. Some might even experiment with prescription drugs. Before you know it, your child could be addicted to any of the above. These are the things that worry many parents.

What can parents do to curtail any alcohol or drug use their children might be involved in? What are the early warning signs to note? It is imperative to know what to observe in your child so that you might be able to get help for them right away.

It is equally essential to know how soon is too soon to have children screened for substance use. You may be surprised to learn that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AA) with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends children be screened for substance use at age 9. The earlier the screening occurs, the better chance of catching a budding addiction, and the sooner your child can get help to end it.

Children and Teen Substance Use Statistics  

As mentioned previously, alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana are the main three substances children and young adults misuse. These easy-to-access substances are mostly legal in the United States. Youth.gov states that young people “engage in binge drinking, a pattern of drinking that elevates the blood alcohol concentration to 0.08 percent or above.” The CDC states that “most people under the age of 21 who drank alcohol reported they binge drank or consumed large amounts of alcohol.”

The CDC also reports that young adults aged 12 to 20 years consume about one-tenth of all alcohol consumed in the United States. Excessive alcohol consumption causes serious health issues for children and leads to accidents, serious injuries, and possibly death. Binge and excessive drinking among young adults account for more than 3,500 deaths and in more than 100,000 emergency room visits (2013).

More statistics about child use of substances from the CDC include:

  • Roughly two-thirds of students have tried alcohol by the 12th grade.
  • Almost half of ninth through 12th-grade-age children reported ever having used marijuana.
  • Close to four in 10 9th- through 12th-grade students reported having tried cigarettes.
  • Two in 10 12th- graders reported using prescription medicine without a prescription.

 A 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health uncovered more startling statistics on initial substance use:

 Children up to age 12

  • 4.9 million children initiated alcohol use
  • 3.5 million tried marijuana for the first time
  • 671 children tried cocaine for the first time

Children ages 12-17

  • 2.3 million children smoked cigarettes for the first time
  • 1.4 million children used marijuana for the first time
  • 59 million children tried cocaine for the first time

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Early Warning Signs of Child Substance Use

Children who misuse substances can become addicted to them just like adults can. Below are a few early warning signs that your child or young adult is struggling with addiction.

  • School-related problems, such as lower grades or high rates of absence.
  • Social problems, like fighting or not participating in activities they once enjoyed
  • Legal problems, such as traffic citations
  • Physical and health problems caused by alcohol or drug use
  • Physical or sexual violence involvement, voluntary or involuntary
  • Memory problems – not able to concentrate or remember school lessons, or parental directives

Warning Signs of Addiction in Children

There are signs to observe in your child if you think they are using alcohol, drugs, or experimenting with tobacco. If you should notice any of the signs, it is wise to start an open and caring conversation with them about substance use, addiction, and their overall well-being. Parents who invite the conversation and do so without using fear or shame are more likely to have an honest discussion about where and when substance use first started.

Below are the early warning signs to know if your child is struggling with addiction:

Physical signs:

  • Unable to go to sleep or wake up at a regular time every day
  • Weight gain or loss, changes in eating habits that cannot be explained
  • Watery eyes, red eyes, constantly sniffling, small or large pupils
  • Sweaty or cold hands
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Hyperactivity and excessive talking

Change in emotions:

  • Chronic lying and dishonesty
  • Nervousness
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • No interest in family time
  • Locking doors, being overly secretive, acting paranoid
  • No motivation, low self-esteem, and lack of energy

If any of these changes are severe enough that you do not recognize your child, please contact your pediatrician and inquire about drug testing.

Some of these changes may become so severe that you don’t recognize your child anymore. It could even feel like you’ve lost your child. In that case, you should speak to your pediatrician about drug testing. 

School and grades changes:

A child struggling with addiction will have noticeable changes in school attendance, such as being late, skipping classes, and drops in their grades. Most schools lack the resources to spot these changes early enough. As a parent, it is better if you approach school officials about substance use.

Loss of money, unaccounted for money:

When your child has an unexpected large sum of money, they may be selling drugs they obtained from your medicine cabinet or elsewhere. If they always seem to be out of money, even after getting their allowance or from a part-time job paycheck, they might be spending it on alcohol or drugs. If expensive items from your home are missing, it might be because they sold them to pay for their addiction.

Friendship changes:

If your child is not interested in spending time with their old friends or has found a new group of friends, this could indicate early substance use. Also, if they become overly protective about letting you see their mobile phone or digital device, this could be a sign, too.

Addicted child rolling a joint

Significant changes in personality and mood:

Several mental health disorders can have the same signs or symptoms of substance use. Anxiety and depression are common mental health concerns in children and may be the reason why your child started using drugs or alcohol, perhaps to self-medicate. Or your child started experimenting with substances and learned that when they are not consumed, they feel more anxious and depressed. It is not easy to know which came first. The best course of action would be talking with the child’s doctor.

Not caring about hygiene or appearance:

Early warning signs of possible substance use include not bathing often, not caring if their clothes are clean, not caring for their hair, teeth, and/or overall appearance. Children care more about their appearance than we might notice. If you notice that your child is not as diligent about their hygiene or appearance, it might be an early warning sign of addiction.

Also, the effects of not getting enough sleep, like dark circles under their eyes or not being able to pay attention, is another identifier of early addiction.

It is vital to get help for your child if you think they might be struggling with addiction. Their pediatrician or other medical professional can advise you best. Serenity at Summit has addiction treatment programs that can prove beneficial for those who battle with substance use and want to end it.

Sources

CDC (November 2020) Underage Drinking. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/underage-drinking.htm

Youth.gov. Substance Use/Misuse. Retrieved from https://youth.gov/youth-topics/substance-abuse

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs) Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/fasd/features/teen-substance-use.html

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (November 2020) Binge drinking. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/binge-drinking.htm

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (November 2020) Teen Substance Use & Risks. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/fasd/features/teen-substance-use.html

SAMHSA.(2020) Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Initiation of Substance Use. Retrieved from https://www.samhsa.gov/data/report/2019-nsduh-annual-national-report

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