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Drugs-What To Do?


Children are exposed to drugs every day. They see adults taking medicine for headaches, classmates using inhalers for asthma, commericals for medications on TV and in magazines, and even people on the news being arrested for drug use. The subject of drugs can be very confusing - and dangerous - for kids.

The younger a child is when he begins to use drugs, the more likely he is to develop problems associated with drug use, such as acts of violence, unplanned or unprotected sex, school failure, or driving accidents.

The average age that a child first experiments with marijuana is 14. And many kids become curious about drugs even sooner. Even children as young as 5 can become involved with drugs. Inhalants, in particular, are abused more often by younger children than older ones. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, about 6% of U.S. children have tried inhalants by the time they reach the fourth grade. 

If you're concerned that your child may be using drugs, keep reading to find out how you can tell and what you can do about it.

Risk Factors
Young people may use drugs for many reasons that are related to factors such as their self-esteem, how they get along with others, and their environment. No single reason determines who will use drugs and who won't, but there are common risk factors to be aware of:

  • low grades or poor school achievement
  • hostile, defiant behavior
  • tendency to be influenced excessively by peers
  • lack of adequate support or supervision
  • history of behavior problems
  • history of drug use by siblings or friends

Warning Signs
It can be hard to know the difference between normal childhood behavior and behavior caused by drug use. Changes in hairstyle or dress may alarm parents but may be normal behaviors. On the other hand, changes that are extreme or sudden may signal drug use.

It may help to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does my child seem withdrawn, depressed, or tired?
  • Has my child become hostile or uncooperative?
  • Have my child's relationships with other family members changed?
  • Has my child dropped his old friends?
  • Has my child lost interest in or drastically changed his appearance?
  • Has my child lost interest in hobbies, sports, or other favorite activities?
  • Have my child's eating or sleeping patterns changed?
  • Does my child suffer from headaches, nosebleeds, or other physical problems for no apparent reason?
  • Have I noticed the odor of chemicals or drugs around my child?
  • Do aerosol products at home seem to be used much too quickly?

Positive answers to such questions may indicate drug use. However, these signs may also apply to a child who is not using drugs but who may have other problems, such as depression or an eating disorder.

Be aware of common drug paraphernalia. Possession of items such as pipes, rolling papers, small medicine bottles, cans of whipped cream or other aerosol products, or syringes may signal that your child is using drugs.

What Can a Parent Do?
If you think your child may be using drugs, ask other adults in your child's life if they have noticed changes in your child's behavior. The best place to start is at school - talk with your child's teachers, guidance counselor, school nurse, or coach. Many schools now have prevention specialists on the counseling staff who can help you if you think your child is using drugs.

Communicating with your child at this time is very important. If he is reluctant to talk, enlist the aid of his guidance counselor, doctor, or a local drug treatment referral and assessment center.

Also explore what could be going on in your child's emotional or social life that might prompt drug use. Is there anything going on at home or school that could be responsible for his shift in behavior?

Even when the signs are obvious, parents sometimes have difficulty admitting that their child could have a problem. Anger, guilt, and a sense of failure as a parent are common reactions. If your child is using drugs, it is important to avoid blaming yourself for the problem and to get whatever help is needed as soon as possible.




Be consistent in enforcing whatever punishment your family has chosen for this type of rule violation, such as revoking driving privileges. Do not relent because your child promises never to do it again.

Many young people lie about their drug use. If the evidence suggests that your child is not being truthful, you may wish to have your child evaluated by a health professional, such as an adolescent medicine specialist, experienced in diagnosing children with drug-related problems.

Depending upon the severity of your child's drug use, you will probably need help to intervene. Call your doctor, local hospital, state or local substance abuse agencies, or county mental health society for a referral to a drug treatment program in your area. Your school district should have a substance abuse counselor who can refer you to treatment programs. Parents whose children have been through treatment programs can also provide information and support to help you deal with your feelings.

Tips for Parents

  • Spend time with your child.
    Stay involved in your child's life, even as he gets older and seems to need you less and less. Know your child's friends and keep up with his recreational activities, his schoolwork, and his social life. Research shows that parents who take an active interest in their child's life can exert a positive influence and reduce the likelihood that their child will turn to drugs.
  • Be a good listener.
    Student surveys reveal that when parents listen to their children's concerns and feelings, kids feel more comfortable talking to them, and are more likely to seek help or stay drug-free. If your child has become involved with drugs, he needs your support now more than ever so that he can begin the recovery process.

  • Provide age-appropriate information.
    Make sure that the information you offer fits your child's age. A typical 6-year-old can understand that he should keep his body healthy and that there are some things that he should not do because they can hurt his body, like taking any medicines when he is not sick. An 8-year-old can understand a simple lesson about specific drugs, like marijuana or cocaine. If you're watching TV and marijuana is mentioned, take advantage of the opportunity to say something like "Do you know what marijuana is? It's a drug that can hurt you." If your child has more questions, answer them. You can teach older children the same message, while adding more specific information about particular drugs and their effects.
  • Establish a clear family position on drugs.
    It's OK simply to say, "We don't allow any drug use, and children in this family are not allowed to take drugs. The only time you can take any drugs is when the doctor or Mom or Dad gives you medicine because you are sick. Drugs can hurt your body and make you very sick; some may even kill you. Does anyone have any questions?"

  • Set a good example.
    If your kids see you drinking or taking drugs irresponsibly, it undermines your credibility. Be careful not to pop pills - even over-the-counter medications - casually. Your behavior needs to reflect your belief that drugs must be used responsibly.

  • Stress critical thinking skills.
    Movies, music, and
    TV barrage kids with distorted messages about drugs, making it seem that using drugs is cool. You can help counteract these messages by helping your children to think critically about what they hear and view.

  • Repeat the message.
    Teach your child the facts about drugs - and keep repeating this important information. Be sure to answer your child's questions as often as he asks them.

Updated and reviewed by: Kim Rutherford, MD
Date reviewed: October 2001
Originally reviewed by:
Steve Dowshen, MD, and Jonathan Schneider, DO

Source:  KidsHealth www.KidsHealth.com is a project of The Nemours Foundation which is dedicated to improving the health and spirit of children. Today, as part of its continuing mission, the Foundation supports the operation of a number of renowned children's health facilities throughout the nation, including the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware, and the Nemours Children's Clinics throughout Florida. Visit The Nemours Foundation to find out more about them and its health facilities for children http://www.nemours.org/no/