Talking About Substance Abuse

Many children and youth think using drugs, alcohol and inhalants will make them happy and popular, or help them learn skills they will need when they grow up. All children, no matter what their age, need to know that abusing substances can cause them to fail at all of those things and may even cause their death. If your children think “everybody’s doing it,” they need to know they are wrong, and who better to tell them than you.

Talking Is Important

You already know what surveys show–drug use is less common among children and youth whose parents warn against it than among those whose parents don’t. Warning is not yelling; it’s talking with children and youth at a level they can understand. It shows them you care, as well as where you stand on the issue. Many parents don’t know how to bring up the subject, or they feel like the children or youth already know more than they do. Adolescents or teens may resist efforts to talk. Some parents think their child is too young to know about drugs. Don’t hesitate–start talking!

Be Realistic

Your child cannot get through childhood, adolescence or teenage years without running into drugs. For many children in out-of-home care, family drug use is normal. Don’t try to compare today’s world with the one you lived in at the same age. Farm, city or suburbs–drugs are everywhere. Children and youth assume that if they’ve tried a drug once and nothing bad happened, they will be OK the next time. Today, more than half of the youth in high school experiment with drugs before they graduate. Since the 1960s, not only has drug use increased, but so has the variety of drugs available and their potency.

Set a Good Example

Examine your own use of drugs and alcohol. Do you tell your children not to drink and then celebrate important occasions by drinking alcohol? Do you need prescription drugs to relax? Children and youth know what’s going on. You’ve got to practice what you preach.

Know the Facts

Educate yourself about drugs. OK PRIDE Curriculum, Session Three, Meeting Developmental Needs: Attachment, Part III: The Impact of Maltreatment and Trauma on the Child, which is available to all resource parents, covers substance abuse and caring for children from chemically dependent families. Information about drugs and alcohol is available at your local library or health department and through the Internet.

Plan What to Say and Where to Say It

Look for a calm time, like riding in the car, when you can talk without being interrupted. Know exactly how you feel. Make sure other adults living in your home feel the same way, so children and youth won’t receive mixed messages. Plan ahead what you want to say. Don’t wait for the crisis–start talking now!

When the Talking Time Comes

Don’t lecture. Let your child talk, too. Listen. Be respectful of his or her right to talk and express an opinion. Clarify family rules about substance abuse. If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so.

Suggest that you find the answer together. Discuss situations in which your child or youth may be pressured to use drugs or alcohol and how to say “No!”

Keeping communication lines open and taking time to talk whenever possible will help your child make good choices when you aren’t there.

Warning Signs of Substance Abuse

  • Changes in mood or behavior: depression, anxiety, being irritable, withdrawing from family, school or social activities, spending increased time alone, impulsiveness
  • Changes in friends: no longer associates with friends and is reluctant to bring friends home, or to have you meet them
  • Changes in school behavior: cuts classes, gets lower grades, loses interest in school or extracurricular activities
  • Injuries: falls, bruises, accidents; any unexplained injury is a serious warning

Drug Paraphernalia

Paraphernalia, products designed for use with controlled substances, are legally sold in music stores, head shops, and various other stores. A few examples are: rolling papers, roach clips, stash cans, bongs, pot pipes and spoons.

Everyday items may also be associated with drug use. The following items are used with the corresponding drugs and may be found in closets, under beds, in the hem of curtains, and other hiding places:

  • Marijuana/hashish: rolling papers, plastic baggies, stash cans, pipes, bongs, roach clips
  • PCP: tin foil or baggies (powder), small vials (liquid)
  • Inhalants: plastic or paper bags (containing gold or silver paint), rags, empty spray cans (cleaning supplies, paint, anything in aerosol cans), tubes of glue, balloons
  • Codeine: cough syrup bottles, prescription bottles (from Rx containing codeine)
  • Heroin and morphine: needles, syringes, cotton balls, spoons, medicine droppers, small foil packets, broken balloons (openings tied off)
  • Cocaine: glassy surfaces, mirrors, single-edged razor blades, rolled-up paper tubes, drinking straws, nasal sprays
  • Crack: pipes, small glass vials, glass tubes, small screens, crushed aluminum cans with holes in the sides, lighters

Finding any of these items may be cause for alarm. Resource parents should immediately notify and seek help from the child’s child welfare specialist if a child placed in their home is suspected of being a substance abuser or if drug paraphernalia is found. Consultation and help is available for both children and families. It is time to have a frank discussion about drug use with the child or youth and the resource parent should seek professional help.

Inhalant Abuse: Sniffing, Huffing

It can kill suddenly, and it can kill those who sniff for the first time. Every year young people in this country die of inhalant abuse. Hundreds of others suffer severe consequences, including permanent brain damage, loss of muscle control, and destruction of the heart, blood, kidney, liver and bone marrow. Today, more than 1,000 products are commonly abused as inhalants. One in five American teenagers has used inhalants to get high, according to a 1996 report from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Many young people say they began huffing when they were in grade school. Children start because they think these substances can’t hurt them, because of peer pressure, or because of low self-esteem. Once hooked, they find it a tough habit to break. The following questions and answers will help you identify inhalant abuse and understand what you can do to prevent or stop this problem.

How can you tell if a young person is an inhalant abuser?

  • Unusual breath odor or chemical odor on clothing Slurred speech
  • Appears disoriented, drunk, dazed or dizzy
  • Signs of paint or other products where they wouldn’t normally be, such as on the face
  • Red or runny eyes or nose
  • Spots and/or sores around the mouth
  • Nausea and/or loss of appetite
  • Chronic inhalant abusers may exhibit anxiety, excitability, irritability or restlessness

What could be other telltale behaviors of inhalant abuse?

  • Holding a pen or marker near nose
  • Constantly smelling clothing sleeves
  • Hiding rags, clothes, or empty containers of inhalants

Huffing is the deliberate inhalation or sniffing of common products to obtain a high; the products include:

  • Glue/adhesive
  • Nail polish remover
  • Marking pens
  • Paint thinner
  • Butane lighter fluid
  • Gasoline
  • Propane gas
  • Typewriter correction fluid (whiteout)
  • Spray paint
  • Cooking spray
  • Fabric protector
  • Air conditioner coolant
  • Household cleaners
  • Deodorant
  • Whipping cream aerosol
  • Room deodorizer

Substance Abuse Resources

Resource parents should immediately contact the child’s child welfare specialist if a child placed in their home is suspected of abusing inhalants. Consultation and help is available for children and families. Some resources for help with substance abuse are:

National Inhalant Prevention Coalition

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Website: or 1-877-726-4727

National Drug and Alcohol Treatment Referral Routing Service Center for Substance Abuse Treatment
National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information
P. O. Box 2345
Rockville, MD 20847-2345 1-800-729-6686

Family Group Headquarters Inc.
P. O. Box 862
Midtown Station
New York, NY 10018-0862
1-800-356-9996 (to request literature/meeting referral)

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