By Guest Blogger Tina Long Spach

There is no easy answer for how or why addiction occurs. The reality is, drugs are everywhere. In fact, some of the most dangerous and addictive drugs can be found in our very own medicine and liquor cabinets. I see young people all the time who began getting high snorting their ADHD drugs or were prescribed opiate pain meds after an injury. Some began the old fashioned way, smoking cigarettes and drinking on the weekends. Some come from single parent homes, and some come from two parent families with helicopter pads. And there is not much distinction when it comes to social class either. In fact, the more money you have, the more drugs you can buy.

Being a teen is not easy. I’m not sure if it ever has been. It’s an existential crisis, waiting to happen which makes this stage of life particularly vulnerable to substance use. One of the greatest risk factors for addiction is early use, and that has a lot to do with the state of the teenage brain. Between the ages of 11 and 19, the brain is undergoing significant changes. The part of the brain responsible for making rational choices and problem solving is developing. This is the prefrontal cortex and healthy development in this area is something we do not want to mess with.

When a young person puts a drug in their body, it activates the pleasure seeking part of the brain, sometimes referred to as the “old brain.” This is the part of the brain that takes control when addiction occurs. A classic sign of addiction is the inability to stop or cut back. The reason this occurs is because the prefrontal cortex has become hijacked by the old brain. The pleasure center overrides the problem solving center which is the area teens need to develop the most. That’s why using drugs of any kind during the teenage years can be a dangerous thing.

Of course, there are other risk factors. Having a family history of addiction, having a mental or behavioral health issue, or having a difficult time with impulse control are risk factors associated with addiction. Others include lack of parental involvement, harsh discipline, physical or emotional abuse, neglect, or experiencing trauma. But there are also protective factors that shield teens from addictive behaviors. Having positive parental involvement, emotional regulation, positive coping skills, problem solving skills, and engagement in activities at school, church, and the community are all examples of protective factors.

For most teens, casual substance use is going to happen. It probably already has. But there comes a time for some when casual substance use crosses the line into problematic use. Has your teen been isolating from you and from their peers? Are they keeping secrets? Have you noticed a significant change in their school performance? Maybe they’ve been getting in trouble at school? Have you found bottles of eye drops, a juul pod, red eyes? They may begin distancing themselves from friends they’ve known for a long time. Friends you always thought were good kids. You may notice them spending a lot of time alone. And, yes, I know, all teens exhibit strange patterns of behavior. Their bodies are changing. Their brains are changing, weird is a normal thing. But there are warning signs. Don’t ignore them.

As a mom myself, I know all too well the struggles that parents go through. We get overwhelmed, bewildered by all the things we don’t know, we hope and pray our loved ones have good judgment. We assume they know what to do, that they have learned from their peers what is safe or unsafe. Or, we become vigilant, determined not to let them get away with anything. We take away their phones, their gaming devices, their privileges, and prohibit them from hanging out with certain friends. We screen their calls, read their texts, follow their cars with GPS devices. Most of us find ourselves in a constant swing between the two extremes. Is there an easy way to do this?

Every parent does what makes the most sense for their family. None of us should judge. That only makes things worse. Judging our kids for using, judging their friends, judging their friend’s parents and judging ourselves for all the poor parenting choices we made over the years is not helpful. The reality is addiction happens and playing the blame game keeps us in the problem. It also keeps recovery from happening.

Knowing and understanding more about addiction in adolescence can be helpful. It doesn’t hurt to read up on the latest trends and understand the nature of addiction. But honestly, talking to your teen is probably the most important thing you can do. Talk to them about the dangers of addiction. You have a sex talk, why not a drug talk? Let them know you are there for them no matter what.

Don’t be judgy. Remember your own days as a teenager? How insecure you felt? How much you felt like no one understood you? Hovering over your child protecting them from life’s adversities is not always helpful. Keeping them from experiencing adversity or learning from their mistakes is detrimental to their development and may contribute to rebellious and risky behaviors. Taking away their phones or privileges is not gonna do it. Your teen needs you to be there for them even if they act, they don’t. So be there for them and let them know you care. That is the best any of us can do.

Helpful websites:

Screening tool for substance use disorder:

To read more articles about teens, click here

Want to see more blogs like this and get notifications on local events and happenings? Subscribe to our free weekly newsletters here.