THE BLOG

More Than a Feeling: How to Tell if Your Child Has a Problem With Addiction

09/10/2013 04:36 pm ET | Updated Nov 10, 2013

One of my favorite photos of myself is a photograph taken on Christmas morning when I was still a child, and in it, I am beaming at the camera, smiling from ear to ear, clutching a large stuffed animal (with whom I would become inseparable for at least a year), utterly oblivious as to what the future might bring. Now, I can attest to this because I know -- with certain conviction -- that the little boy in that photo had no idea he would grow up to become a junkie who would be forced to wander the streets of New York's infamous "Alphabet City," night after night, in search of the drugs that I thought I so desperately needed to survive.

But, I can also tell you -- again with certain conviction -- that my parents also had no idea what was going to happen to their son.

Today, in America, there is no question that, if you have a child in high school, your child will be exposed to drugs. That's a given, not an opinion. And, although many parents have no problem navigating the treacherous waters of The Sex Talk (we all have a responsibility to educate our children about sex and what that means), most of us cringe when it comes to talking to our kids -- honestly and purposefully -- about drugs. In my parents' defense, 40 years ago, a parent would never DREAM of having that kind of talk with their kids; but today, that talk is mandatory.

And you cannot have The Drug and Alcohol Talk unless you yourself are informed and educated.

Because today's kids are going to be more street smart and scene savvy unless you, yourself, used drugs or alcohol. Now, I'm saying this to the parents only: If you grew up in the '70s or '80s, chances are you, yourself, used or experimented with drugs. I understand wholeheartedly the need to keep this part of your history a secret from your kids, but you can also use this to cut through the chase (so to speak) when getting real with your kids about whatever's going on in the world. Because it's important that they know on the front end that you aren't stupid.

Not only might your kid be using marijuana or cocaine, or ecstacy, but they can also be buying bath salts or salvia in any of the head shops that are, unfortunately, usually strategically located near high schools in every major city in this country. Which means that we have to assume that today's youth are so committed to getting high and checking out that we have to be vigilant if we want to help them not descend into years of drug and alcohol insanity.

But where do you go to get educated? If you're reading this blog, this is a good start. The next step is to dedicate some time to really getting on the Internet or down to a public library and getting educated. But for now, let's just take a look at the signs your child or loved one is flirting with danger...

  1. If your child isolates and is in their room with the door closed and sleeps at odd hours of the day while being up all night, something might be amiss.
  2. If you see your child and mistake them for someone else, chances are there might be something going on. Changes in appearance are common in teenagers as they struggle to find their own identities, but sudden, drastic changes can be tell-tale signs that they've adopted a peer group whose values no longer mirror your own. Focus. We've all seen drug addicts and low-lifes. We know what they look like, what they sound like, and what they value. Are your children hanging around with these people and defending their choices? Don't buy into the lie: If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, trust me -- it's a duck.
  3. Are they barking back more often than usual? Again, your child may be finding their own way, but they haven't been taken to some pod field somewhere and swapped out for an entirely different person. If your child is uncharacteristically challenging you or saying things they normally wouldn't, chances are you may have to abandon the argument you're having and sit them down to figure out what's really going on. You KNOW your child. Who is this person saying these hurtful things to you? Ignore the comments and go to the source; your child may just be "pushing your buttons" to keep you from asking the really important questions. They push the buttons to drive you away, usually so that you won't see what's going on. And always bear in mind the one real underlying truth: Our children know our vulnerabilities and know what to say to hurt our feelings or distract us from the issue. They are experts at camouflaging what is really going on.
  4. Have you heard of the munchies? Well, different drugs have different culinary signatures. Marijuana smokers are usually beset upon by a voracious need to eat seemingly everything in sight. You will come home and your kitchen will look like five or six people went on a food binge, but you will discover it was merely your child. Why? Is this a usual eating habit for your child? And then there's cocaine or prescription drugs like Adderall -- these drugs can actually inhibit your child's appetite. Are they losing weight dramatically? Have they begun to skip meals? There could be any number of reasons for this, but that's still no reason to not have a sit-down with your child and talk about what you're noticing.
  5. When did you become an ATM? It's normal to give our children cash for things -- no parent wants to be the one who says, "no" to a trip to the mall or a night out at the movies -- but is your child asking for more and more money? If so, they might be using you to support a drug habit. Ask them what the money's for and then use your intuition. Only YOU know when your child is lying to you. If it doesn't feel right, call them out on it and don't let them storm away without giving you an answer you feel good about. A lie of omission is still a lie, and it's our responsibility to not only turn them down when they ask for money, but also to figure out why they felt they could not tell us the truth about what they needed the money for.
  6. Really LOOK at your child. Study them as they interact with you. Do they pick at their face and arms unnecessarily? Do they seem to always be scratching? Are their eyes red or glassy? These can be the side-effects of drug use, and many times they go unnoticed. Ask them what's going on and, again, trust your intuition. I am not here to frighten you (I promise you), but the hard truth is, no parent wants to be sitting at their child's funeral wishing they'd had the courage to confront the child about their possible drug use.

The world we live in can be a harsh, cruel, and unforgiving place. Drug dealers aren't going to practice restraint because your child is underaged or innocent. Like the cigarette companies in the '80s, they are going to target our loved ones and groom new consumers for their products, and there is nothing we can do about that; it's going to happen whether we like it or not.

But we can unite as a community and do what we can to not provide such a target-rich environment. And the heart of this strategy, I feel, is the fortification of the family unit. If you can do what is necessary to protect the integrity of your family -- if you can educate your children in a way that helps them make good decisions -- then you've already won half the battle.

Which puts you that much closer to winning the war.

Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.

For more by Dr. Howard Samuels, click here.

For more on addiction and recovery, click here.