Is My Child a Substance Abuser?


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What Is This Page About?
Every day, our kids have to make choices that we, as parents, never even dreamed about when we were kids. Peer pressure is a powerful thing, and many times, our kids will reluctantly go along with the crowd and do things that they are not comfortable with and know are harmful in order to gain acceptance. However, if this behavior repeats itself, over time it will manifest itself in addiction. This can lead to serious behavioral, emotional and health problems, with the symptoms of drug abuse mimicking attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar illness or major depression, which may be misdiagnosed if the care provider does not know of an existing substance abuse problem.

As parents, how can we tell if our children are abusing substances? This is a question many parents ask themselves when their child is having difficulties. Unfortunately, too many parents really don't want to know the answer, because this is one subject that can be too scary, frustrating and guilt-laden to deal with. They may ask the right questions and will even do a little digging around to come up with answers, but then will conclude that there is not a problem and will ignore all the signs and symptoms of addiction that their child actually manifests.

When my child was having multiple problems, I discovered to my dismay that he was obtaining many of the substances he was abusing right in our own house and that these household products can cause very serious brain damage. I have detailed information in the paragraphs below on some of the things our kids are up to that we might never suspect.

Who am I? I am not a doctor, social worker, therapist, etc. I am a parent who works in the medical field, who happens to have a large family in which addiction has played a huge role. I have dealt with substance abuse issues with five of my own children, nieces and nephews, friends of my kids, and I, myself, am a recovered alcoholic. So I am speaking to you from experience and from the heart, to try to let you know about the some of the things that I didn't know about until it was too late. Hopefully what I have to say will give you some of the knowledge you need to make the best decisions for your own child.

DISCLAIMER: The things of which I speak below have been witnessed by me and have also been confirmed by talking with teens outside of my family. I assume no responsibility for any untoward event that may occur as a result of any parent using this information. This site is not meant to take the place of a doctor, psychiatrist, or counselor. If your child is having serious problems, you should consult with a professional. The sole purpose of the information below is to inform parents about some of the little known substances our teens are sometimes abusing.

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What are some of the signs to look for?

Your loving child turns mean.
This can happen with the onset of puberty, but it is much worse when there is substance abuse going on. Do you feel like no matter what you say or do, you just can't win? Are you afraid or reluctant to confront your child due to violent outbursts or reactions from them when you attempt to inquire about any part of their lives? Just remember, when a kid is backed into a corner, he may have discovered that the best defense is an offense, and many teens, particularly boys, find that by coming back with loud yelling, they can be very intimidating to their mothers. Suspect drug use if your child has lately become very irritable, unpleasant to or bullying of other family members, very easy to provoke, starts to use a lot of profanity seems tired, worn out and apathetic a lot of the time, or develops a nagging cough, appears to have the sniffles or runny nose, or develops nosebleeds frequently.

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Your child's appearance has gone down the tubes.
This might include long stringy hair, too much makeup in girls (or boys), clothes that are way too big and don't fit, all black everything, and rock teeshirts of bands that have values that you deplore (Marilyn Manson immediately comes to mind). If your child is espousing these bands, there is a chance he will also try to "live up to the image" that these bands project. Two of my kids have permanent scars from cutting themselves in imitation of Marilyn Manson, carving anarchy signs into their hands, arms, and stomachs. We want our kids to have some freedom in how they dress and hate to battle with them regarding their choice of clothes. However, sometimes a parent must put his foot down on certain styles. Black rock tee-shirts with obnoxious bands on them may attract other kids who use drugs and cause kids who are not into that scene to shy away from your child.

Obviously, there is probably a kid or two out there in the world who dresses like this and is not up to anything. From my own experience, I do not know one single teen who chooses to dress like this who is not using drugs. This type of clothing is a magnet for other teens who use drugs. Teens who are not using drugs generally do not want to attract that type of friend. However, keep in mind that there are also plenty of teens who sport a very "preppy" look, who are also abusing alcohol and other drugs, so the manner of dress is just one part of the big picture of teen drug abuse.

Also be very wary of the big baggy pants with lots of pockets. These pants, which are quite popular now, provide lots and lots of hiding places for contraband, and there are a few kids who wear these pants with the sole purpose of shoplifting because there are so many places to put things. Another rather unusual tip-off is if you go to buy your child shoes and he states his feet have grown and he now needs a size twice as large as the last time you bought him shoes. Don't take him at his word...measure his feet with one of those metal foot measuring devices found in shoe stores. Our son did this and we discovered that he was hiding contraband in the toes of his shoes. I have also found out that in certain brands of tennis shoes, like Nike, the kids are able to pull up a label from the heel inside the shoe, which creates a little compartment where drugs can be hidden.

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Your child seems unusually apathetic, staring into space a lot, not focused on anything, is very vague when you try to carry on a conversation, and generally seems out of it.

This could mean they are high while you are talking to them or that they are coming down from some type of drug that they did the day before, like acid (LSD) or ecstacy, which depletes the serotonin in a teen's brain and can cause very depressed type of behavior. However, note that this could also be a sign of major depression and suicidality, so if this behavior persists, parents PLEASE DO NOT IGNORE IT; seek professional help for your child.

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Problems with keeping curfew or not showing up at all until the next day, stating they spent the night at so-and-so's house but "forgot" to call you.

Don't believe it for a minute. When kids do this, there is a good chance they have gotten high on something and were in no condition to call or come home, or they passed out somewhere, or because they were high, they didn't care about anything, including the consequences of not abiding by their curfew. If a child has been brought up to let his parents know where he is, he will generally call them if he is of sound mind and will be worried about the consequences of NOT calling.

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Eyes are red all the time or you are finding bottles of Visine or eye drops in your teen's room, pockets or bookbag.
If a child is trying to cover up his red eyes, he is either smoking pot or possibly huffing, both of which can cause red eyes. If you are finding bottles of Visine or other eye drops, this is a very good indication that your child is up to something. Teens rarely buy things like eye drops unless they are trying to hide something from you.

On the subject of hiding things from you, finding breath mints or breath sprays among your child's possessions can sometimes indicate an attempt to hide the smell of alcohol on the teen's breath.

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Your child seems to be doing excessive cleaning with various cleaning solutions or has a chemical smell on his clothes.

I am going to spend a little more time on this subject because I have dealt with huffing in my son and it left him hearing voices all the time. Huffing, or inhaling various household chemicals in order to get high, is a very, very dangerous activity for your child to engage in. You wouldn't think your child would be so stupid as to do something like this, but huffing might be taking place if you are noticing a chemical or solvent smell coming out of your child's room on a regular basis. When I would ask my son about this smell, he always appeared busy and would say he was cleaning. Unfortunately, since it sounded logical, I didn't question him further. If you smell chemicals frequently on your child's clothes or in his room, please get very suspicious. Huffing burns holes in your child's brain and can cause permanent brain damage, so it is better to investigate and risk being wrong than to ignore it and pay the consequences later with a child who either dies or ends up with severe brain damage.

Young kids are likely to begin on the road to substance abuse by huffing because the chemicals needed are usually lying around the house. Some of the things kids might huff, or inhale, include White-Out (yes, the White-Out that is used in an office). If your child is asking you to buy him White-Out for a school project, your suspicion level should go way up. Schools never require the use of White-Out in school projects. Common markers, especially the large-sized markers, are also used for huffing, so if your child is walking around with markers in his/her pocket, beware! I remember wondering why all of my dry-erase markers kept disappearing. Kids will also huff anything out of an aerosol can, including the aerosol out of whipped cream cans, spray-on leather cleaners, etc.; in fact, any aerosol can of any type can be huffed by the kids. Believe it or not, Glade air freshener is a favorite for kids who like to use inhalants!

Huffing causes severe headaches as well as chronic congestion. My son ended up using an albuterol inhaler because of an asthma-like condition that wouldn't go away. I didn't have a clue that it was self-inflicted due to huffing. If your child is showing any of the other signs above along with lots of headaches, this is another cause for you to get very suspicious.

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Yes, folks, kids are abusing cough syrups and cold pills in record numbers

I thought maybe this was just a local thing, but I had the occasion to speak with a boy who lives 1000 miles from us, and he not only knew all about this trend but admitted to having used cold pills to get high as well. This is much more common than any parent would ever suspect. Every kid I have asked about this has admitted to knowing about it and many times has even admitted to using cold and cough products for the purpose of getting high.

The cold preparation of choice is Coricidin cold pills (which has been yanked from the shelves of numerous stores in our area due in part to this problem). Coricidin comes in a box with 16 pills. I have talked to numerous kids about this, mostly because I couldn't believe it, and all admitted to stealing or buying the Coricidin over the counter and then eating the entire box, which supposedly gives a high similar to the club drug, ketamine, complete with hallucinations. Some of the larger boys have even admitted to me that they took two or more boxes in one sitting (32+ tablets) in an effort to get high. If cold tablets are not available, they are likely to drink an entire bottle of cough syrup with or without alcohol. Nyquil and Robitussin, in particular, are brands a teen might seek out. It is a wise parent who does not keep bottles of these types of cold preparations in the medicine cabinet when there are teens in the house.

Another cold preparation to look out for is Sucrets, which can be crushed and boiled to come up with a powder which contains dextromethorphan, also known as DXM. DXM gives a high similar to drinking several bottles of cough syrup, like Robitussin, and can even cause hallucinations. If you are finding lots of cold preparations around your child's room or in his/her schoolbag, you need to get very suspicious about what your child might be up to.

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There are other things around your house that you might never suspect that your teen could be using to get a high

In continuing with the subject of using common household items to get high, another thing some teens have used is pure vanilla extract that you use in cooking because it contains alcohol, and mouthwash preparations, such as Listerine, which also contain alcohol. In fact, any product that contains alcohol that your teen could drink will be used if your teen is into this type of high.

Kids have also discovered that nutmeg will give a high similar to LSD and, in fact, is known as the "poor man's LSD." However, there are some rather unpleasant side effects to doing this, including headaches and nausea.

Regarding paraphernalia, you may occasionally uncover a pot pipe during a room search, but many teens have discovered that there are products for sale which ingeniously hide the fact that the item can be used for drugs. There are pipes available now that look like a roll of mints, a makeup brush, a battery, or a cigarette lighter, so if you are searching your child's room for paraphernalia, it is wise to keep this in mind and check out anything that does not seem to quite fit with what your child would ordinarily need.

There are also web sites that kids can get into that tell them how to extract various substances from household products, like hair spray, paint strippers, and acetone-free nail polish remover, to come up with pure drugs. Some of these sites have the word "cookbook" in them. It is very important that you monitor teens' Internet activities through the use of one of the "guardian" type of services that many Internet service providers now offer. There's an awful lot of dangerous garbage out there, and our kids do need to be protected from it, whether they agree with us or not.

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It seems like certain medications are disappearing or being taken faster than the prescription calls for

Parents, if you see this happening, it is not your imagination. If your child has been diagnosed with a psychiatric illness such as ADD, ADHD, bipolar illness or major depression, chances are he/she has also been given a prescription for at least one psychiatric medication, which may or may not be helping. But did you know that one pill of Ritalin or Adderall (common ADHD medications) can be sold on the street for anywhere between $1.00 and $5.00?

Both Ritalin and Adderall are in much demand as drugs of abuse, which are often crushed and snorted by teens to get high. Many enterprising kids have resorted to selling their own prescription drugs to make a few dollars on the side. (Please also see Help! I'm Addicted to Adderall)

Dexedrine, another ADD medication, might go for even more. And kids are more than willing to pay a dollar or two for other psychiatric drugs, such as Prozac, Celexa, and other antidepressants.

Parents, if your teens are on psychiatric medications, no matter how much you trust your child, those medications should be kept in a secure locked cabinet or a lockbox, which can be purchased at any discount store or office supply store. You should be administering these medications to your child and you should check to make sure he is actually taking them. Why leave something like this to chance? In our case, my child was not only stealing and selling his medications, he was sometimes taking up to five pills per day more than the prescription called for in an effort to get high. However, some days he didn't want to take his medication, and although I stood there and thought he was swallowing his medications, he was actually cheeking them. He would then would take them out of his mouth and hide them in his drawer to sell or abuse himself later on. I discovered this when I was looking for something else and came across more than a week's supply of his drugs in little plastic pouches. I eventually discontinued some of his medications altogether rather than deal with the abuse that was going on.

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You are pretty sure your child's close friends are abusing drugs

Your child may even admit that some of his friends are using drugs, but will always deny that he/she has any part in it. If your child is spending a lot of time with these friends, don't believe it. If you really think that drug-using friends are considerate enough not to do drugs in front of your child or that your child is just sitting around watching them use while not using himself, think again. If your child is actually resisting taking the drugs, you can be sure he is being goaded and coaxed into using along with the friends. Misery loves company, and it's no fun to get high by yourself. Kids who are not using do not pick users as friends. It is also no fun to sit around and watch other people get stupid on you. So you can bet that if your child's friends are using drugs, he is using with them.

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Your child is looking unusually thin to you, but denies having lost any weight when you question it.

This could be a cover up for anorexia/bulimia, which is a serious problem requiring medical attention and intensive counseling, particularly in girls. It also could be a cover up for the abuse of cocaine and methamphetamines, which speed up the system and take away the appetite, thereby sometimes causing drastic changes in weight. In any case, loss of weight should always be checked out by a doctor to make sure there is not something more serious going on because many serious illnesses can also present with loss of weight.

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Your child comes home from being with his/her friends and cleans out your refrigerator.

This could also be a sign of anorexia/bulimia if it is accompanied by weight loss, especially if your child disappears into the bathroom immediately after eating and you suspect they are vomiting (purging).

However, this can also be a sign that your child has just been out smoking pot, which is notorious for causing "the munchies." If this behavior is accompanied by red eyes, slurred speech, nasty temper, uncontrollable laughing or exceptional drowsiness, you can be pretty sure that your child has been up to something, probably smoking pot. (However, if he is acting normally and he has just spent several hours in a backyard game of football or other strenuous sport, then don't worry too much about him eating you out of house and home.)

Keep in mind that the pot our kids get hold of today is many times stronger than the pot that was available when many of today's parents were kids, and thus is that much more harmful. Pot can cause permanent short-term memory loss, particularly in younger kids whose brains are still developing. One interesting fact that my son learned in his substance abuse program is that five joints of marijuana have the same harmful effects to the lungs as something like 113 cigarettes, so pot is in no way a "harmless drug" as many of its proponents would like us to believe. (See Is Marijuana a Harmless Drug?