Most parents consider drug use to be a topic appropriate for kids in their mid-to-late teenage years, not to their pubescent daughters and sons barely out of middle school. However, research by the American Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) suggests that children as young as 12 are using drugs such as hallucinogens and marijuana, especially in the summer when less adult supervision is available.
“More free time and less adult supervision can make the summertime an exciting time for many young people, but it can also increase the likelihood of exposure to the dangers of substance abuse,” said SAMHSA administrator Pamela S. Hyde. “That is why it is critically important to take every opportunity we can throughout the year to talk to our young people about the real risks of substance abuse and effective measures for avoiding it, so they will be informed and capable of making the right decisions on their own.”
Why Are Younger Children Turning to Drugs?
Although it might not be a direct reason for using drugs, it may be true that many preteens have not yet discussed drugs and alcohol with their parents or guardians, or with adult role models at school. Educational programs start early, but often lack the statistics and impact that lets preteens make an educated decision about avoiding drug use, instead opting for blind statements and warnings. It is possible that preteens who are armed with real statistics and information in childhood will make smarter decisions about drug use when the time comes – which is earlier than most parents anticipate.
One of the most popular reasons cited for young drug use is peer pressure. Children are especially vulnerable in their early teens, when social circles are changing and preteens may be unsure how to cope. It may seem easier to a preteen to try a substance with a group of friends rather than explain why he or she doesn’t want to use drugs, especially if the child is afraid of being the only one excluded from the group.
Long-Term Implications of Using Drugs at a Young Age
No matter the reason, drug use from a young age is dangerous. In the childhood and early teen years, the brain is still highly susceptible to change from the environment. This includes chemical influences, such as the neurochemicals present in recreational drugs and alcohol. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, people who use drugs for the first time as children or teens are more likely to struggle with drug addiction later in life. The same holds true for early alcohol use. Early drug addiction can be difficult to overcome, especially if it comes during the late teen years when independence is being established. Teens who have been using drugs since their preteens might be less cautious about drug use because they have been involved in drugs for so long, making it more likely that they will make a mistake that negatively impacts their health.
Recognizing Drug Use in Young Teens
Children and teens tend to go through mood and behavioral change, particularly during the preteen years when puberty sets in. However, the behavioral changes involved in drug use have their own nuances, and you should be able to distinguish between the two if you are familiar with the way your child behaves normally. Secrecy to some extent is normal, but if your child is obsessive about hiding what he or she does whether alone or with friends, there is cause for concern. Physical symptoms of drug dependency can include changes in eating and sleeping habits, which you might witness if your child uses drugs to the point of dependency. Finally, look for physical signs of drug paraphernalia – although your child may try to be secretive, you might notice something left out in the open or in a bedroom.
Some teens and preteens try substances once or twice and decide not to partake again, but many continue and become dependent or let drug abuse affect their lives negatively. Drug abuse is serious, especially in young people whose brains are still forming. If you suspect that your child is abusing drugs, consult a mental health professional for assistance.