Back in April, several teenaged international school students were detained as part of a drug investigation. The detentions sent ripples through Beijing’s expat community, and with so many parents concerned about protecting their own kids, beijingkids spoke to Rachel Heffield, a professional clinical counselor working with children, teens, and adults at International SOS, about how parents should deal with drug issues. American-born Heffield began her professional career a Clinical Research Assistant on studies for the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA),and is currently completing a PhD in Counselor Education.
What are some signs that a child is using drugs?
Parents may notice sudden changes in mood or behavior. Maybe their child is unexpectedly and inappropriately high and excited, or low and depressed. Their child may seem confused, withdrawn, or spaced out, or on the other hand they could become hyper vigilant, anxious, or experience aggressive outbursts. There may also be cheating, lying, or evasive behavior. Appetite changes such as a rapid increase or decrease in hunger levels can also be a sign. Then there are physical symptoms such as burns on their fingers or clothes, red or bloodshot eyes, and smelling alcohol or marijuana on the person.
A lot of teen behavioral changes can simply be mood swings associated with the hormonal changes in puberty, so look for patterns of behavior rather than accusing them unnecessarily which could create damaging and ongoing mistrust.
Is marijuana addictive? Is it a gateway drug to other substances?
Marijuana can create dependency over time. Most people do not become addicted, but if it’s used before age 20, or used daily, it can become addictive with mild withdrawal symptoms. Like alcohol, marijuana is lower cost and more easily accessible, so it may be one of the first things that kids try. Being under the influence of alcohol or marijuana can lower teens’ inhibitions about other choices for example whether to do other drugs, or become sexually active.
Which teens are drawn to using drugs?
Teens who are struggling in other areas or who are prone to depression, anxiety, or loneliness may be at greater risk. They may enjoy the effects of drugs, and use them to take the edge off.
How common is drug use among teens?
Unfortunately we don’t have numbers for Beijing, but it is an issue in the international community, particularly alcohol and marijuana. There’s a mix of cultures here and what can be a big taboo for some families is not for others. Teens from different cultures are thrown together; some are allowed access to substances by their parents, and others access it through their peers. Alcohol in particular is very accessible in Beijing.
Is peer pressure a factor in teen drug use?
Kids may try out drugs with their friends not wanting to experience rejection or be an outsider. It’s important for parents to be aware of who their children’s friends are, and to ensure they are making healthy friendships. Communications with the parents of your children’s friends is also vital. If all parents in a peer group are invested and present it’s a good protective factor.
If you think your child is using drugs, how should you approach them? What should you say?
Try to create an open discussion; address what you see without making assumptions or accusations. So for example you might say “I notice you’re struggling with your homework,” or “You seem more frustrated than usual,” and explore the behavior to find out what’s going on. If you find out they are using drugs, either by finding paraphernalia or them telling you directly, ask how their drug use developed, where they are using, and what they are using. If you feel it’s an ongoing issue that merits professional assistance, a good question is “How can I help you get help?”
How should parents talk to their children about drugs? When should they start the conversation?
Situations such as the recent detentions create a good conversation starter. Parents could start the conversation with their kids in middle school. It’s possible to begin even earlier but by middle school they are more aware.
What can parents do to prevent their children from using drugs?
Being aware, involved and setting boundaries for healthy, appropriate behavior is key. You can build a solid foundation, but eventually they will make their own choices beyond your control. Should your child make choices you would not wish for them, they need your love and support in facing and working through consequences.
Photos: Courtesy of International SOS and miggslives(Flickr)