Teen girl facing an addictionModern-day addictions stretch across a continuum that can range from the relatively benign (cell phones) to the life-threatening (heroin). Your teen might be addicted to tanning (which raises the risk of developing malignant melanoma); Facebook or video games (extensive late-night use of which might cause him to fall asleep in class); or drugs.

The question of use vs. overuse hinges on “whether the behavior [in question] causes some degree of impairment in a person’s life,” says Paul Boxer, an assistant professor of psychology at Rutgers Newark. However, Boxer adds, be circumspect: “A parent’s idea of impairment might be different from a youth’s idea of impairment. If he’s meeting his responsibilities and going to classes,” you shouldn’t worry.

Further, there’s an ocean of difference between curiosity and dependence when it comes to substances. “The vast majority of adolescents aren’t going to need an intervention. Lots and lots of kids will try something and that will be it. They’ll take a sip or a puff, but few get involved in daily use,” Boxer says. “The more you know about what’s going on in your child’s life, the better parent you’re going to be. A warm, respectful relationship leads to more open communication.” 

So, he says, track whether your child is going to school, staying in school, and how he’s doing academically. “If, all of a sudden, in 11th grade your B student becomes a D student, something might be going on,” he says. The key is “being observant and attentive to the ups and downs of an adolescent’s life.”

Real Abuse

You’ve noticed that your teen’s grades are falling, and he’s hanging around with a different group of kids. In addition, he’s pulling away, isolating himself from family activities. Is it a phase or is it more?

According to Jim Curtin, executive director of Daytop New Jersey, a substance-abuse treatment and education program that sees about 500 Garden State teens per year, falling grades and a change in peer group are the two biggest signs that your teen may be experimenting with drugs.

The primary drug of choice among teens, Curtin says, is marijuana, but “there’s way too much opiate use. Prescription medication abuse is an epidemic, in my opinion.” Once a teen has exhausted the supply of prescription opiates in the medicine cabinets of his family and friends, Curtin says, she’ll try to buy pills on the street, at a cost of between $20 and $60 per pill. “That turns into a gateway use to heroin, which is a lot cheaper.

Curtin says the problem affects “kids from all walks of life. Nobody is protected.”

If you suspect your child is abusing drugs or alcohol, or if he’s been arrested for possession or for being under the influence, he says, “Reach out to a professional for an immediate evaluation. Sometimes that means taking the kid kicking and screaming. But don’t rationalize. Don’t minimize. Don’t hope things will get better.” Too many times, Curtin says he hears parents say, “I thought this was a phase.”

Sites & Sources

  • American Society of Addiction Medicine’s National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign offers free resources to help teens, parents, educators, and community groups recognize the signs and symptoms of substance abuse and other risky behaviors: 800/788-2800; theantidrug.com/resources.
  • Choose Help can assist you in locating a private therapeutic boarding school, wilderness camp program, or teen drug and alcohol rehabilitation program: 877/830-7020; choosehelp.com/treatment-centers/teens.
  • National Drug Facts Week-—this year from Oct. 31 to Nov. 6—is a health observance week for teens that aims to shatter the myths about drugs and drug abuse; drugfactsweek.drugabuse.gov.
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse; nida.nih.gov, and teens.drugabuse.gov.
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; samhsa.gov.
  • Treatment Facility Locator; findtreatment.samhsa.gov. 

Help In New Jersey

  • Carrier Clinic: Belle Mead, 800/933-3579; carrierclinic.org.
  • Daytop New Jersey: facilities in north and south NJ, 888/4DAYTOP; daytopnj.org.
  • Genpsych: Bridgewater, Hamilton, and Princeton, 855/GENPSYCH; genpsych.com.
  • High Focus Centers: locations in north and central NJ, 800/877-FOCUS(3628); highfocuscenters.com.
  • New Jersey Dept. of Human Services 
Division of Addiction Services: 609/292-5760; www.state.nj.us/humanservices/das/home/index.html.
  • Princeton House Behavioral Health: locations in central and south NJ,  
609/497-3355; www.princetonhouse.org.

What Is Addiction?

Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social, and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.

Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response. Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.

Carol Lippert Gray is the editor of Raising Teens, a New Jersey Family publication.