Bio: “Pressures that Cause School-Aged Children to Use Drugs” was written by Village Behavioral Health clinical team member, Erica Smith, M.A., NCC. Erica has several years of experience working in the treatment field as a clinical therapist and has her Master’s Degree in Clinical Counseling Psychology from the American School of Professional Psychology.
Site Description: Village Behavioral Health (http://www.villagebh.com) is a leading provider of residential treatment for children who are suffering from psychiatric concerns and/or substance abuse issues. Our alcohol and drug program engages adolescents in treatment by using the 12-step model, teaching relapse prevention, and showing them how they can gain control over their addiction. Located in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, Village Behavioral Health provides children with the ideal setting to confront challenges, overcome difficulties, and develop the tools needed to have a happy and successful future.
Despite public service announcements and educational programs that raise awareness about the harmful effects of drug use, school-aged children still experience and succumb to pressures that can lead to drug experimentation, use, and abuse.
These pressures can come from peers who urge a child to use drugs and/or a child’s inability to cope with bullying, parental and academic expectations of achievement, low self-esteem, or symptoms associated with a mental health condition. Should these pressures become so overwhelming that a child does not know what to do to manage or overcome them, there is an increased risk of using substances as a means of coping or escaping.
Peer Pressure Seems to Be a Part of School Life
Somewhat considered to be part of growing up, peer pressure can cause even the most reasonable child to contemplate doing something that he or she would not otherwise consider if his or her friends were not encouraging the behavior. Especially for those with easy access to drugs, peer pressure to experiment with substances can make a child feel as though he or she is backed into a corner and given no other option than to do what his or her friends are doing.
The slippery slope in this kind of scenario is the result of the fact that children have yet to develop the skills needed to resist future pressure for continued use, nor do they have the ability to fully know when they are putting themselves in harm’s way as tolerance for a drug develops.
This Occurs When the Child is Still Identifying Themselves
School-aged children are at a point developmentally where they are beginning to try and figure out who they are. Part of that process involves trying to find other children that they identify with; other children with whom they feel that they “fit in.” If a child becomes part of a group of friends that he or she feels comfortable with, and that group of children is doing drugs, the chances that that child will experiment with using drugs as well is very high.
At this point in their lives, children feel a desperate need to belong. If that sense of belonging is found amongst peers who use substances, children will adapt to that lifestyle because they don’t want to risk being shut out.
In addition to peer influences, a child’s home and academic life can lead to a build-up of stress if a child feels as though he or she is not meeting parents’ standards or achieving academically.
Whether this pressure to succeed comes from comparing personal accomplishments with peers or from criteria set by parents or educators, when a child feels pervasive feelings of failure, drugs may be the thing that offers him or her escape from this kind of mounting pressure. With this kind of pressure, low self-esteem can result and lead to an even greater desire to mentally run away from problems by using mind-altering substances.
Certain Conditions Can Be a Trigger for Drug Use
It is not uncommon for certain mental illnesses to lead to the use and abuse of drugs as a means of coping with unpleasant symptoms or side effects that occur because treatment to curb symptoms or effects is not implemented. For example, certain learning disorders or conditions like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can cause children to self-medicate when they realize that drugs produce the relief from the negative symptoms they experience.
Moreover, if a mental disorder impairs a child’s ability to learn, communicate, or apply knowledge, the previously mentioned inability to achieve academically can cause increased drug use or abuse.
Additionally, if an undiagnosed mental illness causes behavioral issues, like those seen in children with intermittent explosive disorder or oppositional defiant disorder, and children find themselves in situations where they are constantly getting in trouble at home, school, or in the community, they may begin to use drugs because they feel like they can’t do anything right anyway, so they may as well get high.
Providing Open Communication to Stop Early Drug Use
While no one can predict whether or not a child will begin experimenting with drugs, producing an environment of open communication at an early age is one of the best ways to prevent substance abuse. If children feel comfortable talking about the things they experience and about the different feelings that they have, they are more likely to talk about negative things that occur as well.
Open lines of communication can also show children that, regardless of what behaviors they may or may not participate in, they will not lose the love received from those around them.
Keep the Conversation Open and Direct
Talking to kids about drugs in particular is especially important. Some parents worry that by bringing up the topic with their children, they are only going to put ideas into their heads. They worry that such a discussion may lead to curiosity and result in their child seeking out a way to experiment with substances.
However, by having these open discussions, you are able to explain to your children all of the reasons why using drugs can be detrimental, and you are opening up the forum for them to ask any questions that they may have. If these children are then presented with the option to use substances, they are more likely than children who were not exposed to such conversations to talk to their parents about what is happening.
Get Your Child Help Immediately
If you discover that your child is using drugs, it is imperative that you get him or her the help that he or she needs. By receiving an intervention at an early age, children are able to learn the tools they need to not only overcome their desire to use drugs, but to remain sober as they grow older.