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What to Do If Your Teen or Young Adult Has a Problem with Drugs

What to Do If Your Teen or Young Adult Has a Problem with DrugsHow do I know if my teen or young adult has a substance use disorder?
Addiction can happen at any age, but it usually starts when a person is young. If your teen continues to use drugs despite harmful consequences, he or she may be addicted.

Anyone Can Become Addicted to Drugs
If an adolescent starts behaving differently for no apparent reason—such as acting withdrawn, frequently tired or depressed, or hostile—it could be a sign he or she is developing a drug-
related problem. Parents and others may overlook such signs, believing them to be a normal part of puberty. Other signs include:
• a change in peer group
• carelessness with grooming
• decline in academic performance
• missing classes or skipping school
• loss of interest in favorite activities
• trouble in school or with the law
• changes in eating or sleeping habits
• deteriorating relationships with family members and friends

Through scientific advances, we know more than ever before about how drugs work in the brain. We also know that addiction can be successfully treated to help young people stop abusing drugs and lead productive lives. Intervening early when you first spot signs of drug use in your teen is critical; don’t wait for your teen to become addicted before you seek help. However, if a teen is addicted, treatment is the next step.

If I want help for my teen or young adult, where do I start?

Asking for help from professionals is the first important step.

You can start by bringing your child to a doctor who can screen for signs of drug use and other related health conditions. You might want to ask in advance if he or she is comfortable screening for drug use with standard assessment tools and making a referral to an appropriate treatment provider. If not, ask for a referral to another provider skilled in these issues.

You can also contact an addiction specialist directly. There are 3,500 board-certified physicians who specialize in addiction in the United States. The American Society of Addiction Medicine website has a Find a Physician feature on its home page, and the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry has a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist Finder on its website. You and the physician can decide if your teen or young adult should be referred to treatment.

It takes a lot of courage to seek help for a child with a possible drug problem because there is a lot of hard work ahead for both of you, and it interrupts academic, personal, and possibly athletic milestones expected during the teen years. However, treatment works, and teens can recover from addiction, although it may take time and patience.

Treatment enables young people to counteract addiction’s powerful disruptive effects on their brain and behavior so they can regain control of their lives. You want to be sure your teen is healthy before venturing into the world with more independence, and where drugs are more easily available.

What kind of screening will the doctor do?
The doctor will ask your child a series of questions about use of alcohol and drugs, and associated risk behaviors (such as driving under the influence or riding with other drivers who have been using drugs or alcohol). The doctor might also give a urine and/or blood test to identify drugs that are being abused. This assessment will help determine the extent of a teen’s drug use (if any) and whether a referral to a treatment program is necessary.

If my child refuses to cooperate, should the family conduct an intervention?
Most teens, and many young adults still being supported by their family, only enter treatment when they are compelled to by the pressure of their family, the juvenile justice, or other court system. However, there is no evidence that confrontational “interventions” like those familiar from TV programs are effective. It is even possible for such confrontational encounters to escalate into violence or backfire in other ways. Instead, parents should focus on creating incentives to get the teen to a doctor. Oftentimes, young people will listen to professionals rather than family members, as the latter encounters can sometimes be driven by fear, accusations, and emotions.

People of all ages with substance use disorders live in fear of what will happen if their drugs are taken away. You can ensure your teen that professional treatment centers will keep him or her safe and as comfortable as possible if a detoxification process is needed. Be sure to let your teen know that family and loved ones will stand by and offer loving support.

How do I find the right treatment center?
If you or your medical specialist decides your teen can benefit from substance abuse treatment, there are many options available. You can start by contacting the government’s Treatment Locator service at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or go online at (This service is supported by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.) This Treatment Locator service lets you search for a provider in your area; it will also tell you information about the treatment center and if it works with teens.

Who will provide treatment to my child?
Different kinds of addiction specialists will work together in your teen’s care, including doctors, nurses, therapists, social workers, and others.

If my teen or young adult confides in his or her doctor, will I be able to find out what’s going on?
If your child talks to a doctor or other medical expert, privacy laws might prevent that expert from sharing the information with you. However, you can speak to the doctor before your child’s appointment and express your concerns, so the doctor knows the importance of a drug use screening in your child’s situation. In addition, most health care providers that specialize in addiction treatment can’t share your information with anyone (even other providers) without your written permission. In certain cases when health professionals believe your child might be a danger to him- or herself or to others, the provider may be able to share relevant information with family members.

How will I pay for treatment?
If your child has health insurance, it may cover substance abuse treatment services. Many insurance plans offer inpatient stays. When setting up appointments with treatment centers, you can ask about payment options and what insurance plans they take. They can also advise you on low-cost options.

The Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator provided by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration provides payment information for each of the treatment services listed, including information on sliding fee scales and payment assistance. Its “Frequently Asked Questions” section addresses cost of treatment. In addition, you can also call the treatment helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (1-800-662-4357) or 1-800-487-4889 (TTY) to ask about treatment centers that offer low-or no-cost treatment. You can also contact your state substance abuse agency—many states offer help with payment for substance abuse treatment.

Note that the new The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act ensures that co-pays, deductibles, and visit limits are generally not more restrictive for mental health and substance abuse disorder benefits than they are for medical and surgical benefits. The Affordable Care Act builds on this law and requires coverage of mental health and substance use disorder services as one of ten essential health benefits categories. Under the essential health benefits rule, individual and small group health plans are required to comply with these parity regulations. For more information on the Affordable Care Act, you can call 1-800-318-2596 or go to:

When you research payment options, be sure you are speaking to people familiar with the new rules (old websites and pamphlets will not necessarily be accurate).

Other services available for teens include recovery high schools (where teens attend school with others in recovery and apart from potentially harmful peer influences) and peer recovery support services. There are other groups in the private sector that can provide a lot of support.

How do we keep things stable in our home until my teen is in treatment?
First, talk to your teen. There are ways to have a conversation about drugs or other sensitive issues that will prevent escalation into an argument. NIDA’s Family Checkup tool gives science-based techniques for communicating with your child effectively without emotions getting in the way, as well as ways for setting limits and supervising your teen. Videos demonstrate the techniques discussed.

Acknowledge your child’s opinions but know that many people with substance abuse problems are afraid and ashamed and might not always tell the truth. This is why it is important to involve medical professionals who have experience working with people struggling with substance abuse issues.

Second, if your teen has a driver’s license, and you suspect drug use, you should take away your child’s driving privileges. This could cause an inconvenience for the family, but could prevent a tragic accident. This could also be used as an incentive to get your child to agree to be evaluated by a medical professional.

Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse

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