Educate yourself about the kinds of drugs your teen could be exposed to, why these drugs are so harmful and what you should do if you suspect drug use.

It may seem like you hear stories daily about teenagers overdosing on drugs with names like bath salts, purple drank and kratom. The truth is marijuana and alcohol are still the most commonly abused substances among teenagers, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

“Using marijuana and drinking as a teenager can make it very hard to quit using as an adult,” says Paul Glaser, MD, PhD, Washington University child psychiatrist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. “It can also lead to inappro­priate risk-taking and serious accident or injury.”

Among high school seniors in 2013, more of them had smoked pot in the past year than had smoked cigarettes, according to the nonprofit While marijuana use is becoming legal in some states, it is illegal in Missouri and for anyone under 18 in every state.

Alcohol use among teens may also be more common than you think. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 35 percent of 15-year-olds say they have had at least one drink, and more than 22 percent of people between the ages of 12 and 20 say they have had alcohol in the past month.

The third most common drugs that teens use? Prescription medications, such as those used to treat attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder. In fact, more teenagers die every year from prescription drug abuse than from heroin and cocaine abuse combined. And 60 percent of teens who abuse prescription drugs get them from friends and relatives.

“Teens tell me they have access to oxycontin and prescription pain medications at school,” says Kristen Mennemeier, MD, a community pediatrician at Baer Pediatrics. “I have had teens tell me they can buy a bag of unknown pills from older students, and they still feel comfortable taking those drugs even though they don’t know exactly what the pills are.”

Dr. Mennemeier adds that prescription drug addiction can lead to heroin addiction, which is on the rise.

Finally, Dr. Glaser warns that “vaping,” or using electronic cigarettes, is very popular with teenagers. Vaping is marketed as being safer than smoking regular cigarettes, but teenagers who vape can still get addicted to nicotine.

Know the Signs
Parents have fears of finding drugs in their child’s room or laundry, but the reality is, teenagers can be very good at hiding activities they know their parents wouldn’t like. Not all parents find physical evidence, so it’s important to pay attention to other clues that a child may be using drugs.

“Bloodshot eyes, dilated or constricted pupils, nosebleeds and declining personal hygiene are all signs of drug use,” Dr. Glaser says. “You can also smell certain drugs, including alcohol and pot.”

Dr. Glaser encourages parents to look for behavioral signs, such as:

  • changes in friendships or personality
  • declining grades
  • losing interest in hobbies or sports
  • skipping class or school
  • withdrawing from family and friends

“Unfortunately, these can mimic other changes that some teens go through, as well as depression and mental health issues,” Dr. Glaser says. “That’s why it’s important to talk with your teen to learn the cause of these changes and how you can help.”

What to Do
“It’s OK to show disapproval, but try not to come across as too harsh. That usually fails with teenagers,” Dr. Glaser says. “Give teens the message that you are there to help—or that you will find others who can.”

Your pediatrician or family doctor can be a great resource in getting to the root of the issue.

“We always talk with teens without their parents in the room first,” Dr. Mennemeier says. “That way, we can get truthful answers about drug use. We also make sure that information remains private unless there is a risk of significant harm. We want to discuss what’s going on and what we can do to help.”

Depending on the recommendations of your doctor, your teen may be referred to counseling, outpatient rehabilitation or a more intensive program.

If you have a question about your teen’s behavior, call the St. Louis Children’s Hospital Teen Helpline at 314.454.TEEN (8336).


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