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Power to the Parents: "Back to School" Means Increased Risk of Substance Abuse

Power to the Parents is a new feature that will appear in every issue of The Guide to Good Health to help parents and guardians who are concerned about the widespread problem of young people and substance abuse. If you know your child is using drugs or alcohol and you are trying to deal with that, or if you are working to prevent your child from using, you will find practical advice and support here from the expert professionals at Gateway Rehabilitation Center. In this issue, school-related challenges are discussed by Richard Foster, Ph.D., executive vice-president for clinical programs at Gateway Rehab.

Richard Foster, Ph.D.Are kids more at risk in the summer months, when they are "free," or is back-to-school a time of higher risk?
School definitely presents greater risk. Once school starts, there is a whole new level of potential exposure to drugs and alcohol. In addition to their classes, kids are involved in after-school activities and sports and they meet a lot of other kids. Their peer network is the most significant factor in whether or not they will begin using.

At Gateway Rehab, we see an increase in teens coming in for treatment once school starts and kids get into trouble, or their parents start to recognize signs of a problem.

What are some of those signs?
Parents need to be constantly vigilant and look for changes – in appearance, behavior, or peer group. A change in appetite, weight loss or gain, or change in personal hygiene can be signs of a problem. Pay particular attention to new friends – new kids coming around, or hearing about new friends that you have not met. These things are red flags.

Parents have to take the responsibility to monitor their kids. Every child is vulnerable, in every neighborhood. Never ignore or dismiss these red flags. This is a common mistake that parents make because they don't want to believe the evidence of a drug or alcohol problem.

On our web site, we have a link for warning signs, under Youth Services, with more detailed lists.

If a parent is concerned that his or her child may be using drugs or alcohol, is it advisable to speak to school authorities about those concerns?
It's fine to speak to the school guidance counselor, and lots of schools have a student assistance program to help kids in trouble, but parents should not think that someone else will take care of the problem. In many school districts, parents can go online and actually see their child's grades and monitor their school performance. Use your family physician as an ally; parents can ask the doctor to do a blood test for drugs and talk to their child about drugs.

How does a substance abuse problem typically begin?
Most often, kids start with alcohol. It's available in almost every home, so access is easy. Pain medication is also readily available. Kids may take their parents pills, but they might have their own prescription, perhaps from a dental procedure or a sports injury. Prescription pain meds need to be locked up or safely discarded after they've served their original purpose.

What else can parents do to protect their kids?
Parents need to understand that growing up today is very different from when they were kids. The pressures are enormous, especially with social media, which adds a whole new level of exposure and pressure. Substance abuse can start online, with meeting a stranger, maybe an older student who is selling drugs. Educate your kids; there are excellent resources for parents and Gateway Rehab has links to these on the web site.

Remember that everything starts in the home, so do your best to provide a healthy, addiction-free environment in which your child feels safe and protected. There are many stressors for kids and lots of them struggle with low self-esteem, lack of confidence and even bullying. They need to feel better so they turn to drugs and alcohol.

Meet the problem head-on, at the first warning signs! Parents should set limits and have consequences that let your child know that you will not tolerate drug or alcohol use. Check and double-check on the kids, pay attention and listen to them. Don't ever forget what your role is.

Keeping Kids Clean: How Parents Can Prevent Alcohol or Drug Use

  • Give a clear, consistent message that alcohol or drug use is unacceptable and that use will have consequences.
  • Be a role model.
  • Listen to your children. It tells them that they are respected and their feelings are important.
  • Ask questions about your child's activities.
  • Teach children coping skills for stressful situations and how stress can be managed without alcohol or other drugs.
  • Educate your children regarding the dangers of alcohol or other drugs.
  • Praise your child. A child with high self-esteem is less likely to use alcohol or other drugs.
  • Spend time together.
  • Meet their friends and get to know the parents.
  • Keep life interesting by keeping children active in sports, clubs or activities.
  • Participate with them whenever possible.
  • Be a parent, not a friend.
  • Give children attention and the assurance that you'll be there with help, guidance and love.
  • Be consistent.
  • Don't let children drink at home. Illegal is illegal, at home or anywhere else.
  • Let children know that peer pressure can be rejected.

Gateway Rehab

Al-Anon and Alateen
12-Step recovery programs for young people

National Institute on Drug Abuse
Materials developed specifically for teens

Partnership for a Drug-free America
Federal website on prevention of underage drinking

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