What’s at the Root of Your Teen’s Drinking and Drug Use?

Some kids use substances to cope with anxiety, depression or other mental health problems. An expert shares wisdom about what to do if you suspect this is the case.

Your teen is using alcohol or drugs, and you suspect they’re well beyond the experimentation phase. Could they be using substances as a way to cope with anxiety, depression or attention deficit? Now might be the time to have a conversation with your teen about what’s going on.

“When we talk about co-occurring disorders, we’re referring to a combination of mental health diagnoses and substance use disorder — having not one or the other but both at the same time,” explains Kimberly Flowers, Chief Clinical Officer at Oakland Community Health Network (OCHN).

While we’ve yet to learn the full impact of the pandemic on our kids, we do know that in 2021, an estimated 140,000 children in the U.S. lost a parent or grandparent caregiver to COVID, and Flowers shares a sobering statistic from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: Suicide was the second leading cause of death in children 10-14 in 2020.

How to know if your child is suffering

It’s not always easy to know if your child has a co-occurring disorder that drives their drinking or drug use and kids aren’t always able to articulate how they’re feeling, Flowers says. “Parents may notice behavior changes, even developmental regression, including tantrums,” she says. Your child’s sleep or appetite may be disturbed or they may withdraw, opting out of social activities with family and friends.

“Your child’s teacher may say your child isn’t on their game. They may have trouble focusing in school and their academic performance may decline,” she says, adding that some children may exhibit anxiety about everyday activities.

Share your concern

A behavioral health expert can provide support and determine if your child is experiencing a co-occurring disorder. But getting to that point requires a talk with your child. How do you start?

Begin by dialing down accusations and lead with calm concern for your child’s wellbeing, suggests Flowers. “Share your feelings and be open that they can express their feelings to you. This is not a lecture,” she says. “Additionally, show you are reliable.” That means answering questions openly or offering to learn together when you don’t have the answer. It also means being open about family members’ challenges with substance use disorder.

When you share with your child what you’re seeing and your concerns, you’re telling them you want to help and support them, not punish them. “Use compassionate and judgment-free language. You might say ‘I see you are spending time alone in your room or spending more time with friends and coming home later. I’m concerned that you are hurting,’” Flowers says. Kids are often relieved when they can stop hiding their mental health challenges.

Get help together

“Remember to share with your child that substance use and mental health disorders can be treated and people do recover,” Flowers says. “You can seek support from OCHN. We have a non-crisis access line with information and support. Call 248-464-6363. Or, call our crisis line at  800-231-1127. There’s no wrong door. We will get you where you need to go.”

OCHN leads a provider service network that assists approximately 23,000 Oakland County citizens at more than 300 service sites across the county. People who receive public mental health services through OCHN’s provider network include those who have an intellectual or developmental disability, mental health challenge or substance use disorder.    

OCHN’s goal is to ensure individuals are aware of and have access to services and supports that will improve their health and quality of life, as well as ensure their engagement in full community participation. Its mission to “inspire hope, empower people and strengthen communities” reflects an unyielding belief in a “Valuable System for Valued People.”

Programs and supports provided by OCHN’s service network are available at oaklandchn.org.

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