By Melissa Riddle Chalos
Winter break can be a beautiful thing. It offers students the opportunity to slow down, rest up, and regroup, a much-needed break from the social and academic stress of the daily routine. It gives families time to be together, create memories, and have important conversations.
Often, the distraction of the routine prevents us from recognizing the developing crisis in our kids’ lives, like substance abuse, depression, or other mental health issues.
Often, the distraction of the routine prevents us from recognizing the developing crisis in our kids’ lives, like substance abuse, depression, or other mental health issues. For parents, winter break provides a crucial opportunity to stop and assess their children’s health and well-being, to understand what’s really going on with them. But what if you see some behavior that concerns you?
Signs of Crisis
How can you know if your child is struggling? According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), it could be when a child or adolescent begins behaving differently “for no apparent reason — such as acting withdrawn, frequently tired or depressed, or hostile.” While parents tend to chalk up these behavioral changes to being a normal part of puberty, it could be a sign that he or she is developing a drug-related problem.
Other signs of drug or alcohol use to look for include:
- A change in peer group
- Lack of personal grooming
- Decline in grades, missing classes, skipping school
- Disinterest in favorite activities
- Changes in eating or sleeping habits
- Deteriorating relationships with family and friends
Naturally, as children grow and mature, they look for ways to assert their independence from their parents. They want more privacy, more privileges, and more time with and acceptance from their peers. They seek new experiences and new opportunities to prove themselves. And sometimes, without awareness of the consequences, they engage in risky behavior such as alcohol or drug use to alleviate peer pressure or, privately, to deal with stress.
Physical signs of alcohol abuse, in addition to those listed above, include:
- An increase in anger or irritability
- Low energy level
- Problems concentrating or remembering
- Slurred speech
- Decreased coordination
- Smell of alcohol on breath or clothing
- Evidence of alcohol use among their belongings
Concerned parents should also be aware that access to alcohol in the home often plays a role. Research conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) in 2019 found that 96.5% of the 12- to 14-year-olds who reported they had drunk alcohol in the past month indicated they got it for free. In other words, they most likely had access at home.
Contributing Factors and Considerations
There are other considerations concerned parents must weigh when trying to determine whether a child or adolescent is in crisis. A child’s risk for developing alcohol use disorder (AUD), the NIAAA reports, may hinge on several contributing factors, including:
- How early drinking starts
Kids who begin drinking before age 15 are 5 times more likely to develop AUD.
- Genetics and family history
AUD risk is influenced by genes, environment, and parental history of drinking and alcohol problems.
- Mental health issues and trauma
Depression, PTSD, and ADHD are all associated with increased risk for AUD.
If alcohol or substance abuse is part of your family history, or if your child already struggles with mental health challenges, and you are seeing some of the behaviors noted above, don’t wait to find the right opportunity to talk with your child about what’s really going on. Speak up now.
Ask. Listen. Learn.
Although it may not seem so, parents are still the most influential people in their children’s lives, so your voice — and what you have to say — does matter. Responsibility.org research found that, “when conversations go up, underage drinking goes down.” Data revealed conversations between parents and kids increased by 73% since 2003, and during that same period, underage drinking decreased by 50%.
Although it may not seem so, parents are still the most influential people in their children’s lives.
If you’ve seen signs of drug or alcohol abuse, or if you’re seeing signs of depression or anxiety, create space to have an open conversation, especially with teens and college students. For the latter, the extended winter break may be the first opportunity parents have had in a while to see firsthand how their student is coping with the freedom and pressure of college life. Even if you didn’t get a change to have a deeper conversation during the school break, it’s never too late to start talking.
Before you begin, consider these intervention strategies from HealthyChildren.org:
- Don’t confront when you or your child is angry or intoxicated. Wait until everyone has cooled off and sobered up.
- Agree on a plan before talking to your child.
- Select a time when you have privacy, and interruptions will be minimal.
- Avoid direct accusations of drug involvement. After all, you could be wrong.
- Don’t belittle or heap on the guilt.
- Try stating your concerns this way: “We’ve noticed some changes in you lately … (give examples) We love you and sense that something may be troubling you. Sometimes people act differently because they experiment with drinking or other drugs and then realize that they’ve gotten in over their heads.”
Perhaps even more important than your words are your actions. If you’ve not modeled healthy behavior for them — if you’ve had a history of substance abuse — you may need to admit that fact. It is important that you communicate your concerns and fears for your child in a calm, strong, and reassuring way. He or she may be making a terrible choice, but it’s never too late to course-correct.
How to Get the Help They Need
By the time a parent suspects his or her child has a problem, it’s likely to be even more serious than expected. It’s important to trust your instincts, get prepared, and make your way toward the truth. Enlist the help of your child’s pediatrician, family physician, school guidance counselor, or a drug abuse treatment provider to get more resources and make a plan.
If you have a child between the ages of 18 and 26 who is struggling with emotional trauma, addiction, or mental health issues like depression, ADHD, or anxiety, the Claudia Black Young Adult Center can help. Here, we understand the challenges that young adults face in transitioning to adulthood, and the mental health issues that often contribute to substance use disorders. Our program is specifically targeted to meet the unique needs of this age group. Whatever this winter break holds, take the opportunity to talk to your child where they are. Protect them and their future by taking steps to get them the help they need.