“I don’t want to come to dinner. I’m not hungry. Just leave me alone!” She slams her door in my face. I lean against it, listening to her cry. I don’t know what’s gotten into my bright, sociable teenager, besides the fact that something is very wrong. No parent ever wants to think that drug use might explain their child’s upsetting behavior. If only I had known how to spot it and what would help her most. In a nationwide survey of parents of high schoolers, most said they would know if their kids were using drugs, yet failed to recognize most of the warning signs. Nor did they know that young women are at high risk. In fact, girls 13 and up is the fastest-growing group of illicit drug users, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). It’s more important than ever for parents to know the signs.
Know the signs
Of the dozens of tip-offs to possibly risky drug use in teens, two especially set off warning bells about young women. Is her hair unwashed or messy, her clothing rumpled or stained? Has she switched her group of friends? Do you know who she is hanging out with? Adolescent girls who lack concern about their appearance and stop seeing their friends tend to be depressed and isolated, which puts them at risk of using drugs.
What you can do
Use the experience of other parents of girls with drug dependency. We all wish we’d trusted our intuition that something significant was wrong sooner. If she won’t talk to you, find a therapist trained in adolescent behavior.
Know the why
Depression goes up for both genders when puberty hits, but it’s nearly three times higher in girls, according to Anita Gurian in the study “Depression in Adolescence: Does Gender Matter?” A major factor: Estrogen levels spike during her menstrual cycle and cause dopamine, a mood balancer, to plummet. That’s when she’s more likely to self-medicate, and if she does, she may feel better – for a little while. But if she continues to self-medicate with illicit drugs, she’ll feel worse. This is partly because serotonin, another feel-good chemical, decreases with the input of artificial highs in the brain. She’s left feeling worse than ever and needs more of the substance just to feel “normal.” It turns into a vicious cycle.
What you can do
Use carrots, not sticks. Suggest stress-busting activities that stimulate feel-good brain chemicals, such as meditation, yoga, deep breathing, creative expression, and physical exercise. Trauma can occur after a deeply disturbing or distressing experience. As many as 80 percent of women seeking treatment for drug abuse report histories of sexual and/or physical assault, including young women who’ve undergone date rape – a significant risk for young women. When highly stressed, her brain produces more of the stress hormone cortisol, which lingers longer in women’s bodies than men’s and leads to the depletion of oxytocin, often called the “love hormone.” Her altered brain chemistry tends to pull her away from relationships, leading to isolation and the risk of self-medicating.
What you can do
Again, find a good therapist. Experts say it takes time, in particular for women, to be able to open up and talk about trauma. But therapy can help rebuild her sense of safety and trust and reach out.
Know the talk
Talk to her when you’re both calm. Not, for example, at the end of a long school day or three in the morning when she’s broken curfew. Approach her with kindness, but be firm. Instead of asking “What’s wrong with you?”, try “What’s troubling you?” Give her choices to get help: “Do you want to go to a therapist or outpatient treatment?” But allow her to face the consequences of her actions: “Do you want to give up your cellphone for a week or miss the party next weekend?” Don’t stop talking to her. Young women who are stressed, depressed, and/or using drugs can be masters of manipulation and denial. Know that these are symptoms of the brain disorder of addiction. The goal is to get her healthy, so stick to your bottom line. Mine came when I found drug paraphernalia in my daughter’s room after I thought she had stopped using. I knew that relapse is especially frequent for young women, and it can take more than one try. I framed my ultimatum as a choice: You can go to a recovery center or I’ll help you find a new place to live. She chose treatment again at a women-centered program, and after a lot of help from addiction counselors, therapists, a peer recovery group, and Medicine Assisted Therapy, she became the vibrant, sociable, productive young woman I knew she could be.
Know the walk
Practically the first thing I learned about dealing with addiction in a child was to lock up medications or dispose of them safely. Many parents also remove alcohol from the home while their child is abusing it or in new recovery. It was suggested that I needed to model a healthy lifestyle for my children as I am their main female role model. Or, as another mom put it, if we want them to get healthy, we have to walk the walk. That’s when I heard the phrase “extreme self-care.” During the years of my daughter’s addiction, I came to see that I needed “me time” more than ever: bubble baths, chocolates, old friends, walks with my lug-head of a dog, quiet moments to focus on what I was grateful for – this precious life.
Know you don’t have to do it alone
I never imagined that I’d become part of a very large club that nobody ever wanted to join: the legion of parents of children with addiction, some in recovery, many not yet. Between 1991 and 2015, the last year official figures are available, over 61,000 young people from 12 to 25 died from a drug overdose (Centers for Disease Control, 2017). The number of parents and other loved ones who have joined together to share support and resources to fight the worst health epidemic in our nation’s history is growing exponentially. Being with other people who are dealing with a loved one’s addiction cuts down shame and emotional pain. Being able to talk honestly without being judged is a huge relief. I have met so many good, loving parents struggling as I did to accept, understand, and effectively address their children’s disease. I take comfort now in being part of the solution, of being one more advocate for those who suffer indirectly from the chronic mental disorder that is addiction. Our children deserve nothing less.