Teen Drugs: What Parents Need to Know

mental health

by Kathryn Streeter

As kids sprout into teens, they they begin spending more time at school or with friends, away from parental supervision. Peer pressure coupled with increasing drug availability often creates a tough environment for vulnerable teens. Understandably, the start of a new school year can be a fearful time for parents of teens attracted to friend groups who use drugs or who have a personal history of experimentation.


Educate Yourself 

Parents’ best way forward is to learn about today’s teen drug culture and where to find support. Houston’s Palmer Drug Abuse Program (PDAP) has curated a robust listing of resources on their website, a reliable place to start. PDAP’s family-focused model reaches parents as well as child, offering a gathering place for healthy encouragement and instruction on how to best relate to struggling teens.


School is the Easiest Place to Access Drugs 

Sasha McLean, Executive Director of Archway Academy, a top Houston recovery high school, says that middle and high school programs have seen a steady rise in campus-related drug activity. “This is an indicator to our community that we need to pay close attention to this issue.” Archway students tell McLean that staying sober in a traditional school environment was nearly impossible. “Their experience is that school was where they had the easiest access to drugs.”

After-school activities open up a host of entirely different social situations which can be dicey for vulnerable teens. PDAP, Houston’s first and longest-running Alternative Peer Group, provides a safe place during this high-risk time for meetings, counseling and sharing, says Executive Director Beth Eversole. Anchored by the 12-Step Program, the regular meet-ups have proven to offer so much more, helping kids bond during an enriching time of encouragement, sharing laughs and doing homework together. Additionally, weekly social events are a key component to counter negative peer pressure, Eversole emphasizes.


Gateway Drug? 

“Trends are truly changing with teens and we don’t see just one gateway drug,“ McLean says. Furthermore, she warns that teens increasingly use anything to escape or have fun. Eversole observes that under-age drinking repeatedly emerges in the histories of those seeking help for substance abuse. Even more worrisome, binge-drinking is the most common form of drinking for teens, who are in a “highly experimental time of life,” explains Eversole.


Go-to Drug is Under Your Nose 

McLean has further cautionary advice for parents, stating, “[Teens] use drugs commonly found in medicine cabinets at home or friend’s residence. Many adults have a stockpile of prescription drugs at home.” Most bathrooms will have an eclectic mix of medication from recent surgeries, dental issues and chronic pain. Examples of drugs most commonly abused by teens include Ritalin (stimulant), Oxycontin (painkiller) and Xanax (depressant). Prescription medications lying around homes are easily available to struggling teens and should be safely stored or disposed of. “Two-thirds of teens who misuse painkillers say they found them in friends’ or family’s medicine cabinets,” says Eversole. She urges parents to responsibly secure prescription medications to diminish the ease of access for their troubled teen.


The Path to Addiction 

Taking drugs behind parents’ back requires stealth. McLean explains that in the beginning, drug use may occur at occasional weekend parties; “[h]owever, many young people see a rapid escalation in their drug use in a short period of time depending on many factors: genetic predisposition to addiction, family issues, relationship issues, school troubles, social challenges, trauma, anxiety and depression.” Most of Archway’s students also have co-occurring mental health issues, McLean says.


Signs Your Teen May Have a Drug Problem 

According to the Addiction Center, parents should be aware of signs signaling a potential drug problem. These include erratic, uncharacteristic behavior, loss of interest in activities, glazed eyes and rapid weight fluctuation. Or, perhaps your teen abruptly exchanged their “good” friends for hardened partiers at school? In the 12-Step program used by PDAP, the importance of who your teen shares time with and looks up to is confronted under Step 2: “Sticking with winners helps a person grow.” In short, Eversole urges parents to “trust their gut“ as they observe their teen.


Don’t delay. Get help now. 

Most severe adult substance abuse begins in the teen years when the brain is developing, producing lasting effects, says Eversole. McLean urges parents to take immediate action:  “Access the guidance of a mental health professional or chemical dependency counselor.” Don’t wait to have a solid strategy in place, before reaching out to a professional, she adds. Whatever a family’s situation, there are a variety of ways to address the issue. For example, PDAP offers their programming cost-free, thanks to a generous base of donors and foundations who believe in the cause. Since its inception in 1971, PDAP has served over a million youths. Eversole explains, “We serve all who desire to lead a chemical-free lifestyle.”


Meetings? Counseling? Recovery high school? 

Whatever level of intervention your teen requires, McLean says, “Houston has incredible recovery resources available: prevention services, high risk classes, residential treatment centers, intensive outpatient programs, alternative peer groups, recovery high schools and even collegiate recovery programs for college students.” For some, PDAP’s services will be apropos; for others, a recovery high school model is necessary, sitting poised to catch kids whose needs require a comprehensive level of intervention. McLean attributes Archway’s success to “a combination of small class sizes, recovery support services, and a deep sense of community.” This, she says, is the magic that makes the school work. Launched in 2004, the school offers a fully-accredited public school diploma, graduating on average 30 students yearly with 94% advancing directly to college.

The importance of partners in the endeavor is vital. Besides The Palmer Drug Abuse Program, McLean highly recommends The Council on Recovery, The Center for Success and Independence, Memorial Hermann Prevention and Recovery Center, Teen and Family Services, Beyond Your Best Counseling and Lifeway International.

Kathryn Streeter writes for Houston Family Magazine. Find her on Twitter @streeterkathryn. 

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