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Spotting Signs of Substance Use in Adolescents

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Within the past year, up to 80% of high school seniors have admitted to using cannabis. Dr. Jay Piland, addictionologist at Pecan Haven Adolescent Addiction and Treatment Center, discusses how parents can begin talking about substance use with their children. 

Piland says substance use can be a progressive disorder; therefore, parents should take an active approach and intervene as early as possible throughout their child's development process. 

On substances commonly used by adolescents

Currently, the most commonly abused substances are prescription pain medications and opioids.  Some of the newer substances are: mojo, synthetic cannabis, and cradum. These drugs are technically not illegal in the United States, but certainly impactful on the adolescent population.

On the difference between substance use and its progression in adolescents and adults

For instance, within the past year 75-80% of high school seniors have used cannabis. It doesn’t indicate that they have an actual abuse disorder, but casual use is where it starts. Many epidemiologic studies – which are done to study the distribution of diseases – make modifications in addiction medicine with regards to the adolescent population.

Adolescence is a period of experimentation for many children and a good proportion of them experiment with various substances.

Addiction is more of a developmental disorder and it starts at the use level, becomes misuse, and then progresses to an actual substance use disorder. For those that are genetically prone, there’s an interaction with earlier factors such as: Adverse Childhood Experiences, genetic variables, and the process of genetic changes that occur within the expression of a person’s genetic code. The genetic code doesn’t change, but the expression of the genetic code can change depending on the use of substances.

On warning signs and resources to combat adolescent substance use

The early warning signs can be changes in behavior, changes in friends, changes in academic performance, changes in interests and extracurricular activities. Also, adolescents which are experimenting or have a substance use disorder tend to socially identify with other individuals of like minds.

Parents can gain information from certain websites such as: the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) at and Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) at 

On how parents and professionals can begin discussing substance use with adolescents

There is a higher probability for adolescents to develop a substance use disorder the earlier adolescents start using substances. In the past, we’ve attempted to educate the adolescent population with regard to the risk involved with regard to substance use. Usually, intervention comes after finding out about substance use. Parents should attempt to intervene as early as possible throughout the spectrum of development. 

Time to Talk is produced with the Children's Coalition for Northeast Louisiana and BayouLife Magazine.

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