Parents: Recognize the signs of alcohol, drug use


Special to the Miami Herald

Failing grades, mood swings, slurring words, bloodshot eyes, neglected appearance, nosebleeds, hallucinations, nausea and lack of energy can all be red flags that say a teen is beginning to use drugs or alcohol.

And as the school year begins, teenagers make new friends, try to fit in and easily fall into just “trying it.”

A couple of months after Gloria’s son began bringing home lower grades than usual, he told her about smoking pot. He was 16 and a sophomore in high school.

“I knew I had to follow up. I got so worried for him,” said Gloria, a Pembroke Pines mom. “I checked up on him, I smelled him, I checked his belongings, I gave him curfews.”

According to Dr. John C. Eustace, medical director of South Miami Hospital’s Addiction Treatment Center, in addition to physical signs, parents can spot the use of drugs and alcohol in teens when they find the “stash.” This can be a bag of marijuana, a pack of cigarettes, beer cans, pills or pill bottles or digital scales used to weigh marijuana.

In Gloria’s case, a $40 drug testing kit she bought at the pharmacy and gave her son unexpectedly confirmed he was smoking marijuana.

Doctors say the initial approach or confrontation after parents find out their kids are using drugs or alcohol is key. They recommend a talk that doesn’t involve a “preaching” or a lecture that scares or threatens. Instead, they suggest a “healthy” dialogue that includes both listening and talking.

“Once the child has become sober, parents should speak with their children in a non-confrontational, non-judgmental, direct manner,” said Dr. Marilyn Camerota, assistant director at the community youth services in the Memorial Healthcare System. “The idea is to have an open dialogue with your child so they understand that their behavior is harmful, but you are there to support them to not continue.”

But once the parents know the teen has developed an addiction, the best thing to do is to seek professional help, Camerota said.

For Gloria, professional help meant taking her entire family to a psychologist and eventually deciding to send her son to boarding school.

“He got to the point where he was sober and doing very well,” Gloria said. “But when he returned, he went back to the same school, the same group of friends and he continued to use marijuana.”

One of the most important things to do with your children is to devote time to the prevention of drug and alcohol use, Eustace said. His recommendation: Evaluate family history and current use of drugs and alcohol among family members.

“Because the human brain is not fully developed until the age of 25 or later, the youthful brain is more susceptible to harm and altered function when exposed to alcohol and drugs,” Eustace said. “A major goal of parents and guardians is to protect the teenage brain from harm for as long as possible.”

Maria, a Miramar mother, had no family history of drugs or alcohol. But one night after waking up to strange noises, she caught her son smoking marijuana in her backyard.

She pressured him into telling her where the drugs had come from, and after various talks, he told her that he got them from someone in school.

“Monday morning I went to the school and requested to see a counselor,” said Maria, whose son was a 17-year-old junior in high school. “I wanted help and I wasn’t going to wait for my child to become a drug addict before getting help.”

The counselors recommended the Memorial Healthcare Systems Community Youth Services Department program, where her son attended classes and took continuous drug tests.

During his time at the program, Maria took away phone and computer privileges, managed his money through a bank account and constantly checked up on him. During that month, he continually tested negative for drug use.

According to Camerota, active addiction is a lifelong disorder that has no “cure.” She estimates that a typical treatment program can last for 12 to 16 weeks. There are also monthlong intensive programs available, but parents must understand that it continues to be a “daily struggle.”

“I talked a lot with my son and it worried me because he always told me about how normal and how accessible it was for him to get drugs at school,” Maria said. “My son said he could buy marijuana for just $5. I do worry about him going back to school.”

For the past 10 years, the use of tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, crack, heroin, hallucinogens, inhalants, pharmaceuticals, over-the-counter drugs and designer drugs by young people has not changed very much, said Eustace.

“However, the potency of the drugs and the availability of the substances has increased,” he said. “The use of the Internet and the prevalence of the various forms of social media has contributed to the proliferation of alcohol and drug-seeking behaviors.”

A parent’s role continues to be one of the most important aspects of prevention and treatment of drug and alcohol abuse. Doctors recommend building strong parent-child relationships at a young age and talking to the children about a variety of subjects, including addictions.

“I’ve always looked for professional help and I’ve been close to God,” Gloria said. “In the future I see my son as a restored man, with healthy friends and as a professional. I believe in my son and I know he is going to be successful.”

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