By Nora Heston Tarte


Once children hit middle school, the availability of drugs (both legal and illegal) skyrockets. A survey from the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that 13 percent of eighth graders have used drugs at least once in the past year. By 12th grade that number reaches 40 percent (2012).

Alcohol, tobacco, marijuana and e-cigarettes remain the most popular drugs for both pre-teens and teens. What’s more concerning, however, are the drugs parents don’t know about, or aren’t properly monitoring—inhalants, over-the-counter and prescription varieties and synthetics. The prevalence of these drugs isn’t as high, but they are dangerous in large part because they aren’t on parents’ radar.


An inhalant is a household or industrial chemical with concentrated volatile vapors or a pressurized gas that kids breathe in via the nose or mouth to produce intoxication. Common culprits are spray paint, gasoline and keyboard dusters. These items “can not only be used to achieve a high but are extremely dangerous,” says Shane Watson, a substance abuse presenter at In fact, inhalants kill more people on the first use than any other drug, due to cardiac arrest or asphyxiation.

Use of inhalants peaks around middle school, Shane warns. And most of the items used are easily found in the house.

Over-the-counter Drugs

Some teens have learned how to take regular medications and turn them into opportunities to get high. From cough syrup to Benadryl, there’s potential for the medicine cabinet in your home to become a starting place for adolescent drug abuse.

One of the culprits is cough medicine. When taken in large quantities, the active ingredient, dxm, can produce an intense high. It typically presents as euphoria followed by dissociative feelings. Benadryl and Dramamine have a similar active ingredient, diphenhydramine, that, when taken in large quantities, causes full-blown hallucinations, more intense than LSD.

“They learn about some of this stuff on the Internet,” Shane says. “It’s incredibly hellish. Not fun.”

The problem is pre teens and teens think the hallucinations will be a good time, when in reality, they end up having a horrible experience.

The trouble with over-the-counter and prescription drugs is the same as inhalants, children use them because they are there. In fact, one reason the use of these drugs (especially inhalants) tapers off in high school is because kids gain more access to illicit drugs.

Synthetic Drugs

A synthetic drug mimics a hallucinogen or narcotic but has a slightly altered chemical structure. Perhaps the biggest obstacle with synthetic drugs is that they are easy to get and most can be purchased in large quantities from China on the Internet. Up until recently, synthetic marijuana, called spice, and other synthetic drugs were legal at both the state and federal level.

“[Synthetic drugs] are physically very toxic,” Shane warns. They have the potential to kill someone.

Signs of Abuse

Regardless of the drug of choice, signs of drug use are fairly standard. It’s important to trust your parental instinct when it comes to evaluating your child for potential drug abuse.

“Parents know their kids more than anyone,” Shane says. “Parents need to not deny themselves when they see something going on.”

Shane says it can be hard for parents to accept that their child is abusing drugs, even if deep down they know that is what’s happening.

If you’re unsure, look for changes in behavior. A child who uses drugs will often have a change in grades, begin to isolate from friends and family or start hanging out with a new peer group, experience mood swings or express sudden dishonesty.

“Some of these things are normal teen behaviors,” Shane says. “But it’s when you see these thing in combination and when you see some of these more drastic things… that’s when it really begins to stand out.”

More obvious symptoms include a drastic change in pupil size, slurred speech, glassy or bloodshot eyes, late hours, disappearing for chunks of time that cannot be accounted for, disappearance of money or valuable items from the home, missing medicine from the home, loss of interest in normal hobbies and increasing amounts of secrecy.

Symptoms that are long lasting and not fleeting often indicate that drugs could be at play.

If you’re worried, inform yourself and know what drug paraphernalia looks like. “You can buy a pipe that looks like a highlighter and it’s actually a working highlighter but it has a pipe on the end,” Shane warns.

Hallowed out pens, suspicious-looking water bottles and aluminum foil can all be used to take drugs.

Making a Difference

Talking with your child is the best first step to addressing a potential drug problem.

Start with a distraction-free environment. “A child is more likely to open up in that situation,” Shane says.

During your conversation, address changes in behavior with your child and make it clear that you are asking because you care. Be gentle and diplomatic and do not accept “nothing,” as an answer. If you remain calm and come from a place of love, your child is more likely to open up.

If you feel certain your child is abusing drugs, move to the next step. It’s hard for some parents to feel they are betraying the trust of their child, but safety is the number one priority. At-home drug tests are easily available. Most tests look for 12 drugs total (seven prescription and five illicit). These tests provide the definitive answer you’ve been looking for.

If your child is caught using drugs, be firm. Explain your stance on drug and alcohol use and keep in mind that parents who are more lax on these topics increase the likelihood that their child will try drugs and alcohol.

When it comes time, dole out an appropriate punishment.

“Parents have a lot more leverage enforcing those rules by using something the child cares about,” Shane explains. He suggests taking away privileges such as an allowance, phone and computer.

Always take steps to protect your child. Lock up drugs that could be harmful and throw out any prescriptions that are no longer needed.

The First Step

Open and honest dialogue is the best way to address drug use before it starts. Build a relationship with your children where they feel comfortable talking with you. Always explain the pitfalls of drug use and use personal examples when possible (i.e. an aunt who died of an overdose). These personal examples will make it easier for your child to connect and drop the it’ll-never-happen-to-me attitude.

Make a plan to say no. Rehearse with your child what they will say if offered drugs and use a personal reason, such as, “I can’t smoke weed because it’ll hinder my performance as an athlete.”

The Good News

The good news is that most kids actually don’t use drugs, and that’s a fact you should share with your kids. When a child is in a peer group where the majority of their friends use drugs, it can seem like the whole world is doing it.

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