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Riskly behavior:
Many teens in search of quick thrills never realize the consequences

May 4, 2006

BY BRENDA RINDGE

The Post and Courier (Charleston)

As the school year comes to a close, 'tis the season for proms, graduations, last flings and parties.

For some teens, health experts say, it also can be the season for dangerous behavior ? drinking alcohol, taking illegal drugs, abusing medication and inhaling household products.

Teens who engage in these activities often are seeking the quick thrill, never considering the fact that the result can be serious injury or even death.

Experts say it's important to talk to kids about such risky behavior, but acknowledge that it's not as easy as it used to be.

"A lot of times, parents have never heard of the things kids are doing," says Charleston family therapist Susan Johnson. "Parents know about alcohol and drug abuse, but they don't know these newer ways to get high."

What's more, teens, and many times even younger children, often do know about those things.

"Parents need to stay current and keep the lines of communication open," she says. "Talk to your children about drugs, and do it often."

Kids who learn about the risks of drugs at home are half as likely as their peers to try or use drugs, according to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

"Risk-taking is fairly common during adolescence and the teen years," Johnson says. "It's how kids learn new things, but it can also be a problem if your child takes the wrong risks. By modeling positive risk-taking, parents can help teens through this time."

Teenagers often are drawn to danger by peer pressure, oppositional behavior (trying to be the opposite of what their parents are) and feelings of invincibility, according to the Campaign for Our Children (www.cfoc.org).

New research from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, published in the April issue of the journal Pediatrics, found that teens who participate in a variety of physical activities, particularly with their parents, are at decreased risk for drinking, drugs, violence, smoking, sex and delinquency.

"Adolescents who spend a lot of time watching TV or playing computer video games tend to be at higher risk for engaging in all of these risky behaviors," says study co-author Penny Gordon-Larsen, assistant professor of nutrition at UNC and a fellow at the Carolina Population Center.

"Anything we can do to get kids to be physically active will help them in terms of their physical health, but this research suggests that engaging in a variety of activities may also have social, emotional and cognitive benefits."

Teenagers with low self-esteem or family issues are more at risk for self-destructive behaviors. Another study in Pediatrics found that obese kids have lower self-esteem than their nonobese peers, making them more likely to engage in risky behaviors.

Alcohol

Each day, 7,000 kids in the United States under the age of 16 take their first drink, according to the Leadership to Keep Children Alcohol Free (www.alcoholfreechildren.org).

How can you tell if your child is drinking? If several of the following signs occur at the same time, or they happen suddenly or are extreme in nature, it could indicate an alcohol problem, the group says:

--Mood changes: flare-ups of temper, irritability and defensiveness.

--School problems: poor attendance, low grades and/or disciplinary action.

--Rebelling against family rules.

--Switching friends, along with a reluctance to have you get to know their new friends.

--A "nothing matters" attitude: sloppy appearance, lack of involvement in former interests, general low energy.

--Finding alcohol in your child's possession or smelling alcohol on your child.

--Physical or mental problems: memory lapses, poor concentration, bloodshot eyes, lack of coordination or slurred speech.

Drugs

Teen use of illegal drugs such as marijuana and Ecstasy has declined in recent years, according to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, but they are still a problem.

"Parents often tell me they had no idea their child was doing drugs," Johnson says. "Usually, there are tell-tale signs, but parents might ignore them."

If your child has been smoking, you can probably smell it on his breath, in his hair or on his clothes. However, if he comes home chewing gum, you might also want to take a closer look to see if he is covering something up.

Heavy-lidded, bloodshot or dilated eyes can be a sign of drug use. Snorting cocaine can cause nosebleeds. Burns on the lips or fingers may indicate your child is smoking a substance through a hot glass or metal pipe.

Unusual behavior also can be indicative of drug use. Hysterical laughing, clumsiness or even an atypically sullen attitude can signal a drug problem.

Other signs can include secretiveness, decreased motivation, stealing, a change in friends or a cash-flow problem.

Inhalants

Inhalants are used by more teens than any illegal drug except marijuana, according to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, which last week released the results of a 2005 study showing that as many as one in five teenagers have abused inhalants.

Inhalants, which are poisons and toxins, are often the first substance abused by youngsters, according to the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition. Inhalants are inexpensive, easy to get and easy to hide. They don't require a dealer or any special paraphernalia.

While inhalant use ? "huffing" or "sniffing" ? is on the rise, fewer than 1 in 20 parents believe their children have ever done it. As a result, parents often don't talk to their children about the dangers.

The chemicals used as inhalants are found in more than 1,000 common household products.

Generally, products that are adhesives, aerosols, solvents, gases or cleaning agents can be inhaled, often by way of a plastic bag, an inhalant-soaked rag or directly from the container.

Inhalants starve the body of oxygen and force the heart to beat irregularly and more rapidly.

The chemicals act quickly to give users a slight stimulation, a feeling of less inhibition or loss of consciousness, but they also can cause Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome, even the first time they are used. Chronic inhalant users can suffer permanent brain damage or risk hearing loss, bone-marrow damage, short-term memory loss, limb spasms or liver and kidney damage.

According to the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition (www.inhalants.org), signs a child may be using inhalants can include: paint or stains on body, clothing, rags or bags; unusual breath odor or chemical odor on clothing; slurred or disoriented speech; anxiety, excitability, irritability or restlessness; missing household items; red or runny eyes or nose; spots or sores around the mouth; drunk, dazed or dizzy appearance; nausea or loss of appetite.

Inhalants are physically and psychologically addicting and users suffer withdrawal symptoms, which can include hallucinations, nausea, excessive sweating, hand tremors, muscle cramps, headaches, chills and delirium tremens, according to the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition.

Prescription, OTC drugs

Kids as young as 12 abuse prescription drugs ? pain relievers, stimulants, sedatives and tranquilizers ? to "self-medicate," according to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

Because they are often in the child's own home, prescription pills are easier for teens to get than illegal drugs.

Teens often think these types of medications are safer than street drugs, but they're wrong. Taking prescription medications without a doctor's supervision can be just as dangerous and as potentially lethal as taking illicit drugs, experts warn.

Parents should know what medicines, including over-the-counter drugs, are in their home and pay attention to quantities.

Signs that a child may be abusing medications can include: sweating, high body temperature, dry mouth, blurred vision, hallucinations, delusions, nausea, stomach pains, vomiting, irregular heart beat, high blood pressure, numbness in toes and fingers, red face, headache and loss of consciousness.

What to do

"Kids need to hear from their parents that drug and alcohol use will not be allowed," Johnson says. "They need to know they will be held accountable and what the consequences are."

The rules should be simple: No drug or alcohol use by teens will be allowed, according to Parents: the Antidrug (www.antidrug.com). The punishment should be straightforward and meaningful.

If you think your child may already be abusing drugs or alcohol, let him know you know and tell him how you feel about it. Have this discussion without getting mad or making accusations.

When you have a better idea of the situation, you can decide what to do next, such as setting new rules, punishments and possible treatment.

For more information on dealing with a child who may be abusing drugs or alcohol, visit www.antidrug.com or www.drugfree.org.

Brenda Rindge can be reached at 937-5713 or at brindge@postandcourier.com.