How are children’s substance abuse problems different from adult addiction?

By David Joel Miller.

No Drugs

No Drugs
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There are some differences between the substance abuse issues in children from those in adults, but they may be less than we used to think.

There are a lot of people who continue to think of substance abuse, addiction in particular, as an adult disease. That would be way wrong.

Most adults with a substance use disorder began their use at a young age. Seventy-five percent of all disorders, mental health, and substance use, begin before age 24. Half start before age 14.

Kids are getting into drugs and alcohol abuse earlier than most adults realize.

Larger treatment facilities will tell you about children as young as 5 that already are developing signs of alcoholism. Children frequently report that their drug use began as early as age 8.

That’s right folks, as soon as the end of the third grade we are already able to identify children at risk to develop an addiction, going to prison or both.

Are there “Gateway drugs?”

There used to be much discussion of so-called “gateway drugs.” The idea was that up till you tried the gateway drug you were not at risk of becoming addicted. Once you take the gateway drug you are on the path to addiction. The drug that got blamed the most as a “gateway drug” was marijuana. While I think letting your third or fourth grader smoke some of your “”medical marijuana” is a way bad idea, it has turned out that for most adult addicts that was not the gateway drug.

One reason that marijuana was implicated was that it was illegal. That meant that to procure marijuana in the first place you had to be breaking the law. Someone who was selling marijuana illegally and risking jail might also be selling other “harder” drugs. Breaking society’s rules on substance use is a bad direction to start out on, but there is more to the story than that.

For most children, the gateway drugs have been cigarettes and alcohol. Consider the cost to society of a child who starts smoking at an early age. There is good evidence to show that after trying that first cigarette if the child lights up a second one they are going to be smokers for life.

Look around any homeless encampment, any old-time A.A. or N.A. meeting or the public hospital emergency room and you will find a lot of smokers. Nicotine has been reported as more addicting than heroin. I have heard people in recovery from drug addiction say that it was harder for many of them to kick cigarettes than to kick the heroin.

Alcohol is also a severe problem for children.

The younger they start drinking the larger the risk. Some people have argued that there are places in Europe where children begin drinking at a young age and do not develop any higher rate of alcoholism than we do with a legal drinking age of 21. The biggest difference is that in those cultures children learn to drink a small amount with meals and as part of a social occasion.

Here in America, the tradition is that when you drink – drink all you can. These drinking occasions are times when a bunch of people are out to “party” and alcohol is a large part of that. The result is that children, teens, in particular, learn to drink heavily and to drink to get drunk. You do not take your grandparents to the party with you.

Drinking to get drunk, binge drinking is, of course, the riskiest way to drink.

Younger substance abusers go for cheap or easy to get substances. They are more likely to sniff paint or glue. They are also less likely to understand how risky a substance is; hence they go for synthetic drugs because they can get them without breaking a law. What they miss is that these drugs are “not for human consumption” for good reason. Some of these synthetic drugs can cause permanent brain damage.

Back to that gateway argument. It appears that it is not the fact that a drug is illegal, as in the status of marijuana in the past, but the fact that it is “illicit” that the child is sneaking to do something they are not supposed to do, that predisposes them to greater risks down the road.

One thing we miss is the relationship between substance abuse and crime. This is not solely the rule for adults. Children of any age who drink or do other drugs are more likely to do other crimes, behave in anti-social ways and get into trouble.

One report said that on the order of 80% of all those in prison here in California were drunk or high in the 24 hours before they did their crime.

There is no doubt that being under the influence disinhibits you. Drug use also means you need money and that may lead children to do crimes to pay for their drug and alcohol activities. It is hard to keep asking mom for drug money unless she is also in the drug game.

Drinking and drug use may look different in youngsters than in their older compatriots but addiction and alcoholism start in the young and just keep getting worse.

As a colleague of mine keeps reminding us – any drug use by an eight-year-old is a problem.

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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog check out my Google+ page or the Facebook author’s page, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings, and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books

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One thought on “How are children’s substance abuse problems different from adult addiction?

  1. Pingback: How are children’s substance abuse problems different from adult addiction? | up2xxi

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