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How to Identify Adolescents at Risk: What Can a Parent Do?

by Ashley Smith

Drug use may be on the decline among most teens, but parents should still be aware of those who are at highest risk of developing substance use disorders. The science of addiction has made great strides in the past 20 years, recognizing the factors that can lead someone to drug misuse, and coming up with protective factors to reduce these risks. While not everyone who ever tries a drug will become addicted, common risk factors can be identified that will make some young people more vulnerable than others. These factors can affect children at different phases of their lives starting at a very young age, all the way into adolescence. If behaviors are observed in children early on that could signal possible drug issues in their future, parents can implement preventative measures to secure the health and future of their child.

Risk factors can impact future drug use in various ways, especially if a child is exposed to frequent drug use in their home or community. While some risk factors are more influential during certain age ranges than others, environmental factors like family, school, and their surroundings seem to have the greatest effect. Having a powerful parent-child bond is one of the most impactful protective factors from most children, along with having support from their peers.

Aggressive Behavior

Kids who exhibit destructive behavior as early as infancy or early childhood are more likely to be at risk. If they show a lack of self-control or are unreasonably temperamental, it may be a snapshot into the future. As they begin to grow, these personality traits can negatively impact their early childhood interactions with their family members, peers, and community that can later expose them to drug misuse. Once they begin to feel alienated by their aggressive behavior, they may turn to rougher groups of people to feel accepted. Often, these types of friend groups are involved in drug use recreationally, especially in adolescent years.

A good preventative measure to take if parents notice their child is showing signs of aggression or hostile temperament early on is to seek counseling. Early development therapists can work with parents to find activities that will stimulate the minds of young children, helping them develop their personality and learn ways to express their feelings without resorting to anger or violence. The assumption that the child with ‘grow out’ of their angry quirks is often misguided and can result in greater psychological issues in adulthood.

Lack of Parental Supervision

Children who are neglected or do not form strong bonds with their parents are at risk of an uncertain future. Parents play a crucial role in a child’s life even early on, influencing their future behaviors. As a child is growing up, their parent’s involvement in their day-to-day activities helps create a level of communication between the two parties, showing trust and concern. When a child is raised in a home where they have free reign and very little supervision, they will often be left to their own devices, usually negative ones. As they grow older, they will be accustomed to their parents having very little oversight over their daily activities, leaving a lot of room and time for potential bad behavior. Most kids will refrain from doing things they are not allowed to because parents set boundaries and warnings early on in life. Even when tempted with something they know they shouldn’t do, the potential consequences or punishment they face from their parents is usually a great deterrent. Children who do not have this dynamic at home will have more opportunities to experiment with drug use and be exposed to negative social scenarios.

An important preventative measure for parents to take is to create a strong bond early on in their child’s life and take an interest in their thoughts and activities. Without being overly controlling, parents who are involved will usually know if their child is up to something or is hiding potential serious issues. Having this level of trust and communication can help reduce the risk of possible drug misuse.

Early Exposure to Drugs

Young people who are exposed to casual and recreational drug use in their home or neighborhoods are more likely to have laidback attitudes about drug use and addiction, particularly those growing up in rough neighborhoods where drug dealing and drug use is rampant. When a child is developing and learning how social norms work, being around a relative who openly uses drugs or alcohol in excess will send the wrong message. Not only will the use of drugs be normalized, but the way in which people act when intoxicated will also become more commonplace. Kids may think that because their relative regularly misuses substances that it’s okay to do. Setting this bad example early on is one of the main leading risks that affect young people.

To prevent early exposure to substance misuse, parents should be concerned with recreational drug use or alcohol misuse around children. Even young children under the age of 10 quickly start learning what happens when people around them become intoxicated. By eliminating substances from their environment, they will approach drugs with greater caution in the future if they are ever in a peer pressure situation to experiment.

Children are often compared to sponges because they can soak up their surroundings starting from an early age. Everything they are exposed to will have some kind of impact on them. Repeated exposure to certain things will leave a lasting impression and help shape their attitudes about life, including drug misuse. Ideally, every child that is born should have a stable home environment with positive influences around them that will guide them away from negative things like substance misuse, but that’s sadly not the case. Even the most involved parents can’t control every aspect of their children’s lives but developing a strong bond is one of the best preventative measures that can be taken early on.


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Medically Reviewed By:

Health Care Resource Centers Clinical Team

Health Care Resource Centers Clinical Team

Health Care Resource Centers Clinical Team

The Clinical Team at Health Care Resource Centers is our team of physicians and medical directors within the organization. HCRC is a CARF accredited organization and has been providing addiction treatment services for over 32 years in the New England area.

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