Middle school is a time of transition and exploration. It’s also the first time most kids encounter drugs and alcohol. While one in every 10 middle schoolers experiments with marijuana and nearly a quarter use alcohol, unsuspecting parents often miss the warning signs that their child is abusing drugs.
Your child’s middle school years are a time of rapid growth, intense curiosity and strong desire to fit in with peers. This early adolescent phase is also a high-risk period for substance abuse because it typically marks the first point in their lives when they’ll encounter drugs and alcohol.
Nearly one-third of middle schoolers say that students keep, use or sell drugs in their school. And while most middle schoolers don’t use drugs and alcohol, those who do engage in drug use and underage drinking are headed down a dangerous path.
One-third of middle schoolers say students keep, use or sell drugs in their school.
The younger a person is when they start using substances, the greater the chance they’ll become addicted. The immature adolescent brain is also uniquely susceptible to irreversible brain damage from drinking and drugs. Studies show that the marijuana and alcohol they use today could contribute to lasting physical and mental problems.
One of the challenges with adolescents is that the adolescent brain is actually hardwired for risky and reckless behavior. Scientists believe the thrill-seeking behaviors and lack of impulse control common during adolescence likely confer an evolutionary advantage: they foster independence.
If young people weren’t able to throw caution to the wind, the theory goes, they might never leave the safety and confines of the home where they grew up. But the same evolutionary traits that help adolescents set out on their own can also lead to poor decision-making when it comes to sexual activity, drinking and drugs.
Other factors can also influence whether your middle schooler experiments with drugs or alcohol. Delinquency and poor academic performance in school have both been found to increase the likelihood that a middle schooler will use drugs or alcohol. Friends matter, too. Research shows that preteens who hang around other kids who engage in substance abuse or criminal activity are more likely to engage in such activity themselves.
Bullying, which is rampant in middle schools, can also contribute to substance and alcohol abuse. Nearly 20 percent of Florida middle schoolers say they’ve been physically bullied during the past 30 days, and 35 percent report being socially bullied within the past 30 days. Middle school boys, in particular, are more likely to turn to drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism when bullied.
Permissive parental attitudes toward drugs and alcohol can also influence an adolescent’s decision to experiment with substances, as can socioeconomic status. That’s because adolescents from more wealthy households have the resources to purchase substances their less affluent peers might not.
Peer pressure also plays a significant role in adolescent drug abuse. To middle schoolers, there is nothing in their world more important than fitting in with their peers. Unfortunately, in their quest for peer acceptance, many middle schoolers believe that drinking or using drugs will make them more popular.
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While drug use among middle schoolers is significantly lower than drug use among high school students, it’s still a problem. Nearly a quarter of kids in middle school say they’ve tried alcohol at some point in their life, and 18 percent of eighth-graders report having tried an illicit drug during their lifetime. Of particular concern are a recent uptick in marijuana use among preteens and a spike in inhalant use.
Other less commonly used drugs among eighth-graders include amphetamines, tranquilizers and hallucinogens. Approximately 1 percent of eighth-graders report having tried LSD, cocaine or steroids, and less than 1 percent have used crack, heroin, methamphetamines or other illicit drugs.
Vaping is also a hot trend among eighth-graders, with nearly 19 percent reporting that they’ve vaped some sort of substance at least once in their lives.
Not surprisingly, alcohol is the most common substance abused by middle schoolers. In 2017, 23.1 percent of eighth-graders surveyed said they had drunk alcohol at some point, and 9.2 percent report having been drunk in their lifetime. Four percent of eighth-graders admitted to binge drinking, which is defined as having five or more drinks in a row at least once during the previous two weeks.
But the impact of a drunken escapade can last well beyond the initial buzz. Neuroscientists at the University of California, San Diego, who’ve studied the brains of teens who binge drink, found brain damage that they believe reduces the attention span of boys and diminishes girls’ ability to process and understand visual information.
Since most preteens get alcohol at home or from someone they know, keep close tabs on any alcohol you keep in the home. If you notice missing bottles, talk to your child.
One in 10 eighth-graders has used marijuana within the past year, making it the second most common drug abused by middle schoolers. Preteens are also getting in the vaping craze, with 3 percent of eighth-graders reporting they’ve vaped marijuana within in the past year. Daily marijuana use, meanwhile, has usurped daily cigarette use, with 0.8 percent of middle schoolers reporting the use marijuana daily versus the 0.6 percent who smoke cigarettes every day.
Most preteens don’t see much harm in using marijuana. Only half of eighth-graders said they see any harm in occasional marijuana use, and two-thirds don’t believe there’s any risk in trying marijuana once or twice. However, marijuana can have negative impacts on memory, learning and concentration. Some individuals develop panic attacks when using marijuana, and like cigarettes, it can lead to lung damage, including cancer.
Inhalant use — which includes sniffing glue, gasoline, paint thinner, computer duster, markers and other household chemicals — has increased significantly among eighth-graders. In 2017, nearly 9 percent of eighth-graders reported engaging in huffing, as it’s sometimes called. Only 1.2 percent of adolescents reported using inhalants in 2016, by comparison.
One reason inhalants are so popular among middle schoolers is because such products are easy to find. As central nervous system depressants, inhalants slow down brain activity, producing a euphoric effect similar to drunkenness. Unfortunately, many kids fail to see the dangers of the practice.
Inhalant use can result seizures, trauma, accidents and even sudden death. Kids who abuse inhalants are also more likely to skip school and to suffer from depression and suicidal behavior. Inhalants can also serve as a gateway to other, harder drugs, such as opiates, and adolescents who use inhalants have an increased likelihood of using heroin as adults.
Sneezing, coughing and frequent nosebleeds are possible signs that your child may be using inhalants. Other common signs include mood swings, confusion, sores on the face or in the mouth and a rash around the nose.
While opioid overdoses and deaths are skyrocketing nationally, heroin and opioid use is actually quite low among adolescents. Since 2002, Vicodin use among eighth-graders has declined by more than 70 percent, and OxyContin use has fallen by nearly 40 percent. Researchers say they believe the decline could be a sign that efforts to curb prescription opioid abuse are working.
But while fewer kids appear to be popping prescription painkillers, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl pose a terrible danger to kids who get their hands on them. Parents are often oblivious.
Jamie Lund said she had no idea her 13-year-old son, Vincent, was using opioids until she found him dead in bed one morning. He had overdosed on heroin that had been laced with fentanyl, a potent opioid that is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine. Lund told her local television news station that she had recently learned that Vincent was being bullied in school and had begun cutting himself.
A number of telltale signs and symptoms can indicate that your child may be using drugs or alcohol. Warning signs can include frequently changing friends, withdrawal from normal activities, declining interest in school, general moodiness and changes in eating and sleeping patterns.
Your middle schooler might also start skipping school, missing curfews and making up lies to cover his or her tracks. Lack of motivation is a huge red flag for substance abuse.
Other signs can be even more obvious. If your child is actively under the influence, you may notice that he or she slurs while talking or seems unusually drowsy or fatigued. Students using marijuana may have bloodshot eyes. Pinpoint pupils can be a sign of heroin or barbiturate abuse. Children using cocaine may sniffle frequently or have raw, irritated nostrils.
Withdrawal symptoms from certain drugs, such as amphetamines and cocaine, can cause strange skin sensations. Children who are abusing these drugs may scratch or pick at their skin or hair.
If you notice any of the warning signs mentioned above or suspect your child is using drugs, talk to him or her in a calm manner and seek professional help.