Assume that you are a little boy. All your life you have tried to fit in with other boys. But you just don’t. You are too anxious and afraid inside. Whenever anyone starts to tease or bully someone, you think it’s aimed at you. Sarcastic laughter, the person who takes the blame – it’s all about you all the time. Your anxiety means you are the scapegoat – the boy who is bullied.
Your anxiety also makes it impossible for you to concentrate in school. Your grades fall, your parents get upset with you – this creates even more anxiety.
Now suppose you find out that if you drink a potion, all your anxious feelings go away. In one moment, you are as calm as all the other kids. Suddenly, you’re Joe Cool.
This scenario often describes the alcoholic child under age 16 years.
When a child suffering from anxiety disorders, severe shyness or social anxiety discovers alcohol, it’s as if he finds magic. Like Alice in Wonderland with the “Eat Me!” mushroom, when he takes a drink, he grows taller and stronger. Suddenly his shyness vanishes and he’s the life of the party. Instantly she can flirt and have fun like all the other kids her age.
“Kids with disorders are smart and they find ways to cure themselves,” professional substance abuse counselors often point out. Self-medication with street drugs or alcohol is very common because it works. In most substance abuse programs, 75% to 80% of the teens also have chemical dependency issues or what is known as a “dual diagnosis.” The child has a problem like alcoholism or drug addiction, but there is an underlying diagnosis often overlooked. In other words, the child’s presenting or outward problem is alcoholism but the underlying or hidden disorder is anxiety. Often the substance a teen chooses to abuse “matches” his underlying illness.
For example, teens with severe anxiety and depression often gravitate to alcohol. Some depressed teens also get addicted to cocaine, which makes them feel energetic and increases self-esteem. Teens with Attention Deficit Disorder/Hyperactivity sometimes find their way to cocaine, which is chemically similar to Ritalin, a drug used to treat the disorder. Also, having ADHD vastly increases a child’s chances of alcoholism. Teens with early onset schizophrenia often self-medicate with marijuana. Many teens with undiagnosed learning disabilities turn to alcohol or drugs.
In each case, the substance is a good match for the underlying disorder. It relieves negative “feeling states” like anxiety, frustration, anger and rage -allowing the teen to feel normal.
According to a 2005 report from the American Psychological Association, children with mental disorders can often get along without chemicals until they hit the middle school or high school. At that point, the school environment becomes less sheltered: they are no longer in a self-contained classroom with one teacher. Academic pressures increase as the more directed teens develop concerns about getting into college and maintaining grade point averages. Problems such as undiagnosed learning disorders and ADHD can make it impossible for a teen to keep up academically in this more competitive, less nurturing environment. School failure leads to poor self-esteem, pressure from parents and teachers, depression and hopelessness. This in turn leads to experimentation with self-medicating chemicals.
Meanwhile, social pressure becomes more intense. A teen often feels she has to wear the right clothes, use the right slang, own a cellphone and an Ipod, design a website on MySpace, and so forth to be accepted by her peers. If she has an underlying problem such as a learning disorder or depression, she will have a hard time conforming to such pressures of teen life. If she does not gain acceptance in the regular teen scene, she is more likely to use drugs and drink in order to gain acceptance from a nonconformist peer group.
When teens use drugs and alcohol, they create a huge new set of problems. Because the substances are illegal, teens may run into conflicts with legal authorities. Drugs are an expensive habit, which means an addicted teen will steal or otherwise do anything to get money. Street drugs are unregulated, which means they can contain hazardous substances. Alcohol and street drugs cause impairment and damage to developing organs including the brain and female reproductive system. Using them can lead to automobile accidents, unprotected sex, and other hazards. Finally, the earlier a person starts using drugs or alcohol, the more likely he is to become addicted.
Without proper treatment or recognition of their underlying mental problems, teens have a terrible time overcoming their dependence on their substances. Parents need to understand not only the signs of alcoholism and drug use, but also symptoms of learning disorders, developmental disorders, and mental diseases. Early intervention and professional treatment can help a teen get back on track to a productive meaningful life as an adult.