Substance Abuse in Children and Adolescents: Information for Parents and Educators
By Stephen N. Campbell, PhD
Nova Southeastern University
Substance abuse among American youth is a widespread problem. Despite indicators that use of
illicit drugs and alcohol has declined over the past decade, a U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services survey in 2002 (Johnston, O’Malley, & Bachman, 2003) of 43, 700 adolescents in nearly 400
schools nationwide indicated that more than half (53%) have tried an illegal drug. If we count inhalants
in the definition of illegal drugs, nearly one third of students have experimented with drugs by the time
they reach eighth grade. And it isn’t just marijuana—30% of the students surveyed reported using a
drug other than marijuana by twelfth grade.
The survey also showed that teenagers continue to experiment with alcohol and cigarettes. Again,
although there is evidence that, over time, alcohol use among youth is declining, a recent national
survey indicated nearly 11% of youth age 12–17 were binge drinkers (U.S. Department of Health and
Human Services, 2002).
Parents and teachers need to recognize that substance abuse is a serious threat to the physical
well-being of children and adolescents (such as danger to the brain and other vital organs) and their
psychological functioning (such as impaired memory, judgment, ability to learn, and decline in academic
performance). Children who use drugs and alcohol are also more prone to accidents, risky sexual
behavior, violence, and thoughts of suicide. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services (2003), 15% of 18 year-olds surveyed in 2002 reported driving under the influence of alcohol.
In addition, another recent study found that high school students using marijuana on a frequent basis
had much higher rates of delinquent and criminal behavior, including serious aggression, sale of illegal
drugs, and carrying a handgun (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2004).
Causes of Substance Abuse
Attitudes. Children and adolescents use drugs and alcohol for many reasons. Not only are the
consequences of substance abuse a problem, but so are the attitudes teens have adopted toward
substance use. For example, data from a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
report (2000) indicated that, as the number of young people who use marijuana has increased, the
number who view marijuana as harmful has decreased. Most teens do not see any major risk trying
marijuana once or twice. Researchers have suggested that changes in risk perception and knowledge
may be due to a decrease in anti-drug messages in the media, an increase in pro-drug messages
through the popular culture, and a lack of awareness among parents about the prevalence of drug and
Social, emotional, and family influences. Parents must understand why children and adolescents
use drugs and alcohol. The desire to be accepted into a social group, peer pressure, and curiosity are
common reasons. Children also use drugs to deal with depression, boredom, anger, and anxiety.
However, research suggests that drug use by family members plays a strong role in whether children in
the family start using drugs.
It is important to keep in mind that parents are the first and most powerful influences in a child’s
life. As a parent, your child looks to you for help and guidance in making important decisions, including
the decision not to use drugs. As a role model, your decision not to use illegal drugs will reinforce your
message to your child.
Prevention Strategies for Parents
Preventing a child from using drugs and alcohol
makes more sense than having to help the child to stop
once he or she has started. It is more difficult to stop
using drugs or alcohol when there is a psychological or
One of the biggest deterrent to substance abuse is
the fear of disappointing a parent. Therefore, prevention
starts at home. There are a number of actions parents
can take to create an environment where substance
abuse is discouraged.
Trust and Mutual Respect
Develop a sense of respect and trust between you
and your child. Spend time in activities together:
- Do fun things such as going to movies.
- Encourage participation in family decisions.
- Build trust and establish open lines of
communication early. What you say and what you
do must be consistent.
- Stay involved in your child’s friendships and
Effective communication involves talking to and
listening to your child:
- Communicate that you care: Children do not care
about what a parent says to them unless they know
that the parent cares about them. Actions are just
as important as words. Your child can spot
hypocrisy miles away.
- Do not preach: Discuss concerns without delivering
- Have facts handy: Know what you are talking about
and use brief examples to make your points.
- Be a good listener: Listen to what your child has to
say. Avoid interruptions. Ask questions for clarity,
state what you think is meant, and verify that you
understand correctly. This shows that you did listen,
and what your child says is important to you.
- Do not judge: Try to understand what your child is
saying without judging his or her motives, opinions,
or conclusions. Use appropriate body language.
- Encourage your child to recognize and express his or
her feelings: While you are talking to your child, it is
important to let your child know you care not only
about what he or she thinks but also about what he
or she feels.
Talking to Your Child About Drugs and Alcohol
Be informed and give your child the facts about
drugs and alcohol, and your expectations, unemotionally
- Scare tactics and exaggerated stories do not work:
Children see and hear a great deal about drugs and
alcohol at school. They see other children in the
halls and on the playground who use drugs and
alcohol. Children can see first-hand what is true and
what is not.
- Clarify your standards and expectations: Make sure
you let your child know where you stand and what
your expectations are regarding the use of drugs
- Share appropriate information: Make sure the
information about drugs and alcohol is
developmentally appropriate to your child (your
choice of words and the type of information should
be at your child’s grade/ability level).
- Teach your child about choices and consequences:
For every choice there is a consequence. Stress the
importance of evaluating the consequence before
making the choice. Consider what may happen first
and then decide if it is worth the cost.
Interventions for Home and School
Strategies for Parents
Know the signs of substance abuse. You need to be
aware of dramatic changes in your child’s behavior
(sometimes it is gradual; some children may use drugs
and alcohol for a time and go undetected). Children may
experiment with drugs and alcohol to fit in with their
peers, but discontinue using after the experience. Some
children continue to use drugs and alcohol and develop
a psychological and/or a physical dependency. Look for
the following warning signs:
- Depression, fatigue, withdrawal
- Poor grooming
- Hostility and deteriorating relationships with family
- Changes in academic performance
- Increased absenteeism or truancy
- Lost interest in sports or other favorite activities
- Changes in eating or sleeping habits
Although these signs may be indicative of other
problems, they are usually present among substance
abusers. Within the home, be aware of the following
- Drugs and drug paraphernalia such as pipes and
- Odor on clothes and in the bedroom and/or the use
of incense and other deodorizers
- Use of eye drops
Talk with your child, family, friends, and school
personnel. If you believe your child is using drugs and
alcohol, talk with the child. A child who is confronted
may deny any substance abuse, may confess and ask for
help, or may confess an experimentation that has
occurred but is now over. Talk with siblings and your
child’s close friends who you know do not use drugs or
alcohol and see if they have concerns for your child.
You can contact your school psychologist, social
worker, counselor, or chemical-dependency specialist.
Most school districts have professionals who can
conduct a screening and help identify the need for
referral for evaluation and treatment. Many treatment
centers and some counselors in private practice will
complete the initial assessment without charge and
offer advice or referrals as necessary.
Strategies for Teachers
Model and teach healthy behaviors. Next to their
parents, teachers typically are the most powerful role
models for children and youth. You can provide a good
model for students to follow as well as provide drug
- Talk to students about drugs and let them know
how you feel about substance abuse.
- Help students develop skills and attitudes that will
keep them away from drugs and alcohol.
- Incorporate drug education and prevention
strategies in class presentations. For example, the
biology instructor can discuss the impact using
drugs has on the development of the prefrontal
cortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for
planning and reasoning and which is not fully
developed until age 20.
Intervene directly. Teachers may be the first to
suspect a student is using drugs and alcohol. Obtain
appropriate training on ways to identify students with
substance abuse problems. Intervene if you believe a
student is using drugs or alcohol and discuss substance
abuse by students with school personnel (such as
school nurse, school psychologist, principal).
Warning signs of substance abuse that you might
observe in your students include:
- Slurred or unintelligible speech
- Excessive sleeping in class
- Bloodshot eyes
- Many absences or truancy
- Significant drop in academic performance
Other Sources of Help
Additional information can be found in local
libraries and from health departments, mental health
agencies, and youth groups. The school psychologist,
guidance counselor, and school nurse are excellent
resources at school. Most treatment facilities in your
area can offer information and referrals. Videos, the
Internet, books, and local support groups such as
Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous for
teens are also good resources.
Parents and teachers are the most influential people
in the lives of children. Consequently, it is crucial that
parents and teachers respond proactively rather than
reactively in preventing substance abuse in children by
understanding the warning signs and acting
appropriately and decisively.
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Stephen N. Campbell, PhD, is an Associate Professor in
the Center for Psychological Studies at Nova
Southeastern University, Ft. Lauderdale, FL.
© 2004 National Association of School Psychologists, 4340 East West Highway,
Suite 402, Bethesda, MD 20814—(301) 657-0270.