The Dangers of Childhood Drug Use – What to Know

drug use

Drug use by your child, it’s one of a parent’s biggest fears. So, how can you tell if your child is using drugs? And what is the best approach to talk about it? We asked Caroline Barangan, MD, Adolescent Medicine Specialist, to give parents tips on handling this uncomfortable and potentially dangerous situation.

The numbers can be shocking. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse 35.7% of seniors have used marijuana. There is also a significant increases of marijuana use for sophomores with 28.8% experimenting and even 11.8% of kids is grade 8(per 2019 data). If your child begins using marijuana before age 18, they are up to seven times more likely than adults to develop a drug problem.

Furthermore, using marijuana makes the heart beat faster. It is also harmful to the lungs and heart increasing the risk of stroke and heart disease. “Marijuana use also impairs memory, judgement and affect mood, potentially causing anxiety and psychosis,” says Barangan.

Drug Use Harms the Developing Brain

Young brains are especially susceptible to the harmful effects of drugs. “And this is during a time when there is a lot of development happening,” adds Barangan. The brain’s neurons interact differently with drug use in a child’s brain causing serious behavior changes.

“Studies have shown that drug use during adolescence can result in decreases in memory, attention and information processing leading to poor school performance,” cautions Barangan. “Often this loss in brain functioning does not recover even after drug use is stopped.”

3 Drug Use Warning Signs 

  1. Happy then sad. The brain’s pleasure centers are stimulated at first making the user feel good. However, constant use makes it harder to feel pleasure without the drug.
  2. Stressed then sick. Certainly drugs can be a coping mechanism for stress. Yet continuing use lessens this effect and even more drugs are needed to relieve stress. On the negative side, withdrawal of the drugs can cause the user to feel sluggish and sick.
  3. Lax logic. The brain’s reasoning and decision center, the prefrontal cortex, is significantly affected by drugs. In other words, impulse control and making sound judgements are difficult for a drug user.

Surprisingly, a common symptom of marijuana withdrawal is not being able to sleep. This is reported by over 40 percent of those trying to stop using cannabis. According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cannabis use affects health in many serious ways.

Parents Beware: Drugs Hiding in Plain Sight

Teenagers are resourceful and crafty. With the help of technology and online shopping they are able to disguise their drug use with everyday objects parents often overlook. A quick “stash can” web search can be eye opening for a parent. For example, most stash cans sell for less than $15.

According to common hiding places may include the following:

  • Desk or dresser drawers underneath items
  • Small boxes – jewelry, pencil, etc.
  • Backpacks/duffle bags
  • Under a bed
  • In a plant, buried in the dirt
  • Between books on a bookshelf
  • In books with pages cut out
  • Makeup cases – inside fake lipstick tubes or compacts
  • Under a loose plank in floor boards
  • Inside over–the–counter medicine containers (Tylenol, Advil, etc)

It’s important to remember to talk to your kids about the dangers of drugs and how to say no. In fact, drug use can often develop from peer pressure or finding a way to cope with stresses in a child’s life. 

“It is very easy to assume that a change in personality, behavior, activities or school performance during adolescence are part of becoming a teenager,” Branagan states. “Unfortunately, it can also be a sign of something else, like a mood disorder, substance use or both.  Letting your teenager know that you care about them and encouraging them to come to you when they are struggling can allow them to get the help they need sooner rather than later,” she adds.

Vaping and E-cigarette Danger

In general e-cigarettes often resemble regular cigarettes, USB flash drives, pens or other everyday items. According to the CDC, approximately one-third of U.S. middle and high school students using e-cigarettes reported using marijuana in the device (based on 2016 data). JUUL e-cigarettes, which can be mistaken for a flash drive, are popular among teens. They frequently have a high level of nicotine. In fact, a single JUUL pod contains as much nicotine as a pack of 20 regular cigarettes.

Related: A Revealing Look at the E-Cigarettes and Vaping Epidemic

For more information for both parents and teens about quitting smoking or vaping, you can click here. Parents can also use this tip sheet from the U.S. Surgeon General to talk to your child about vaping.

With this in mind, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration free national helpline is 1-800-662-4357 (HELP). It is open 24/7, 365 days a year offering confidential treatment referral and information (in English and Spanish). If you or someone you know is facing a substance (or mental) problem, please reach out to them.


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