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Warning Signs: 5 Red Flags in Kids Who Are Susceptible to Addiction

Be sure your child isn't at risk for addictive behavior by keeping an eye out for these signs.

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By Marissa Rosado

04/16/14

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Even if you’re on Facebook, you might not be privy to every aspect of your child’s social life. Adolescents, by nature, seek independence by detaching from their parents and keeping more of their lives to themselves. These formative years are also characterized by changes in the brain that allow drug abuse to occur more easily than at other times. How can you, as a parent, reduce the risks of your child engaging in substance abuse and becoming an addict? Below I've listed five signs that indicate your teen is extra-vulnerable to using drugs or alcohol, and what you can do about it.

1) Risk Taking

Important rewiring is taking place in your teen's brain. This rewiring ultimately prepares your child for moving out of your home and becoming more independent. The level of dopamine, an important neurotransmitter associated with reward, is lower in adolescents, but when it is secreted (by engaging in new and exciting behaviors), it is released in higher concentrations than in adults. This results in the adolescent having a much stronger drive to engage in dopamine-secreting activities. Drug-taking releases dopamine, but so does achieving a goal (even if it's a new level in a video game) or learning a new skateboard trick or acing a test. When you notice that your teen is bored, remember that it will take innovative and interesting activities to relieve his or her boredom. Do not discourage your child from taking risks, but try to direct the risk-taking in as responsible a way as possible. Try to eliminate boredom as a trigger for drug use.

2) Anxiety

In the face of a new challenge, how does your child react? A certain amount of anxiety is normal, and can even act as a motivating force. When the anxiety becomes extreme, however, your child may feel desperate for a solution. Many addicts and alcoholics are perfectionists and as children they sought approval at all costs. The anxiety can be overwhelming and push your child to seek relief in drugs or other destructive behavior. Alternatively, this drive for perfection (straight A's, perfect athlete, piano prodigy) can backfire and cause your child to simply give up. This is a setup for drug use too: The pain of failure is unbearable, especially in a family where expectations are high. Drugs ease that pain.

Take the pressure off your child. Let him pursue his own interests and experience the joy of achievement for achievement's sake. Go easy on rewards and punishments. Let your child know that he is loved unconditionally. When your kid believes in himself and wants to reach goals because of an internal drive, not because he's seeking approval, he will not need to look elsewhere for validation/comfort.

3) Depression

Although moodiness is a characteristic of adolescence, long-lasting or frequent depression is not. In 2013, there were reports that children as young as five years old were showing signs of depression. It’s awful, and heartbreaking, but it’s a reality we have to discuss. Keep an eye out for a few specific behaviors. Does your child complain that she is always tired? Does she sleep too little or too much? Has she suddenly lost or gained an appetite? Trust your instinct on this one. Kids get tired from staying up too late and appetites increase with growth spurts, but if these behaviors seem extreme or are accompanied by a loss of affect, your child may be suffering from depression. Untreated depression and other mood disorders may lead to self-medication with drugs. Maintain open communication with your child by being non-judgmental and if something seems wrong, ask about it.

If you have concerns but can’t seem to get any answers from your child, reach out to teachers, coaches, babysitters, or anyone else who spends considerable time with your child. Have they noticed a change in your child’s demeanor? Are they able to shed light on a recent event you weren’t aware of?

4) Social alienation

Has your normally social child become isolated? Does your teen prefer to be alone than with his peers? Does your kid feel ostracized or left out?

Address social alienation before it becomes a problem. Kids do drugs in order to fit in with their peers or to escape the pain of isolation. School situations such as bullying, dealing with a learning disability, or not fitting in with the other kids all create tremendous pressure and anxiety. Maintain communication with the school so you know what's going on. Spend enough time with your child that she knows she can trust you with her feelings and confide in you. Many adult addicts say that they felt different as children. You may not be able to create a social life for your child, but if you acknowledge this "different" feeling and assure your child that she is okay anyway, you will go a long way to helping her feel safe and comfortable in her own skin. Talking about your own social challenges when you were a child is also very helpful in letting your kid know she'll make it through the tough times.

5) Emotional avoidance

If your child is unable or unwilling to experience difficult emotions, she may be setting herself up for substance use later in life. Pushing feelings down requires effort, and addicts learn to use drugs to cope with difficult emotions. Whether your child's emotional avoidance is a result of trauma or conditioning or something else entirely, it needs to be addressed if you want your kid to experience a healthy and fulfilling life.

Lead by example. When you’re feeling frustrated/angry/upset, articulate those feelings. Show your child that you don’t have to punch holes in the wall to feel better. Sometimes relief is as easy as saying how you feel out loud. Also let your child know that feelings can be overwhelming, but they always pass.

We advise seeking professional help if your child displays emotional avoidance. Sometimes the inability to feel emotions is a sign of something deeper, some trauma that needs to be addressed, or some organic problem like depression or another mental illness. Many addicts have never received proper treatment for their mental illness and consequently they self-medicate with often disastrous results.

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There is no magic trick to ensuring that your child will not abuse drugs or become an addict. Nor is there a fool-proof way to predict addiction or abuse. Open and honest communication, however, goes a long way toward maintaining a healthy relationship with your child so that if and when problems do arise, you can address them before it's too late.

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