The 5 Stages of Addiction: A Guide for Parents

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Nothing compares to the panic you feel when you learn your son or daughter is using drugs. You might be angry, disappointed or hurt. Perhaps you're embarrassed or you blame yourself. Maybe you don't know what to think.

Maybe it's all of the above.

The best thing a parent can do in this situation is arm themselves with the facts. Before you act on any of the above emotions, learn the five stages of drug addiction. When you know where your child is at, you can then find out the best way to help them.

Stage 1: Experimentation

There's no way to know if experimenting with drugs will lead to a problem later on. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, teens try drugs for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Acceptance. They think others are doing it, and they want to fit in.

  • To feel good. Different drugs produce various feelings of euphoria.

  • To self-medicate. Trying drugs may be an attempt to quell feelings of anxiety, depression and stress.

  • To perform better. Some kids try certain drugs to perform better academically or athletically.

  • To thrill-seek. They want to try new things, especially experiences they view as daring or thrilling.

Signs your teen might be in the experimentation stage

It's difficult to catch a loved one during this phase, because let's face it: Teens can be sneaky. If they simply tried a drug and they don't want you to find out, chances are they would be able to hide it from you. It's usually easier to spot the later phases. That said, signs your child might be in this phase include:

  • You can see it. When they come home, look them over. Are their eyes red? Are their pupils especially dilated or constricted? Are their cheeks flushed?

  • You can smell it. It's hard to hide the smell of alcohol and marijuana. Get in close and see if you can smell either of these on their breath, in their hair or on their clothes.

  • They act funny. Are they stumbling or unable to focus? Are they slurring their words or laughing hysterically? Are they sluggish or nodding out while talking to you? These are all telltale signs of substance use.

Stage 2: Regular Use

During this phase, your teen may have settled on a favorite substance (referred to as a "drug of choice") and is incorporating it into their life. Use might strictly be social — on the weekends with friends — or it could be daily. Either way, they have decided they like the way a drug makes them feel and that their life is better using it. Someone in this phase may seem "functional."  

Signs your teen might be in the regular use stage

This is another phase that's difficult to recognize. Pay attention to all the same signs in the first stage. Teens who are starting to use a substance regularly may also shows signs of:

  • Isolation. They just want to be left alone.

  • Lack of motivation. When they don't have their substance, they may have a hard time mustering their "get up and go."

  • Being secretive or deceitful. It's likely your teen can't keep up this phase for very long without things starting to look and sound suspicious. Are they not where they said they'd be? Do their plans sounds vague? When you press for details, do they tell you it's none of your business? If yes, there's a problem.

Stage 3: Risky use

The line between stage 2 and 3 can be somewhat muddled, especially since "risky" is subjective. But a teen who's engaging in risky use will have a hard time hiding it from anybody. People are starting to notice there's a problem. It's affecting their everyday lives and relationships.

Signs your teen might be in the risky use stage

  • Changes in normal behavior patterns. This could include changes in sleep patterns, appetite and weight, skipping class, declining grades, ceasing to hang around friends or acquiring new friends.

  • There's no question. They come home pass-out drunk. They drive under the influence. They miss school or work due to using. They can't make it to family functions.

  • That's just not your child. Your once-sweet child is now angry, withdrawn or violent. They pawn their valuables or steal from family members to get money for drugs.

  • You find evidence. You find any of the following: pills, pipes, syringes/spoons, pieces of aluminum foil with trace substances on them, tiny baggies, broken pens (in a pinch, the casing of a pen can be used as a pipe).

Stage 4: Dependence

When a person is classified as "dependent" on a substance, they become both physically sick and mentally distraught without their drug of choice.

Signs your teen might be in the dependence stage

  • They suffer signs of withdrawal when they don't have the drug. These will differ with the substance being abused but include:

    • Heroin/opiates: diarrhea, nausea, dilated pupils, high blood pressure, depression, sleep disturbance

    • Methamphetamine and cocaine: fatigue, agitation, paranoia  and psychosis

    • Benzodiazepines and barbituates: muscular pain, insomnia, anxiety attacks, sweating, nausea, headache

    • Marijuana, spice and ketamine: depression, anxiety, insomnia

    • Alcohol: headaches, sleep disturbance, retching, tremors, hallucinations and seizures

Stage 5: Addiction

Someone in this final stage is suffering from the disease of addiction. The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines addiction as a "chronic, relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences."

Signs your teen might be in the addiction stage

A desire to stop using, the warning of a doctor, distressed family and friends — to someone in this last stage, these things usually aren't enough to achieve long-term abstinence. Willpower is not enough. When you're seeing any or all of the signs of stages 1-4 and your teen still can't stop (and stay stopped), they are likely in the addiction phase.

Recovery is possible, but you're going to need help

If you recognize your child as being in stages 1-2, this is the time to open a dialogue about it. According to the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, when parents talk openly with their kids about drugs, their children exercise better self-control and develop more negative feelings toward drug-related behavior. This article offers guidance on how to talk to your children about drugs.

If you recognize your child as being in stages 3-5, you need professional help. Don't battle this disease alone.

Contact Cornerstone Healing Center to learn how we can help. Reach out today - 800-489-1781. Recovery is possible, and Cornerstone can help.

By Megan Krause

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