What to Do When the Drug Problem Strikes Home; Abandon the Guilt Therapists Say, and Get the Child into Treatment

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IT could be as subtle as sudden withdrawal from family activities by a normally enthusiastic 15-year-old son or daughter. Or perhaps your child has become moody, combative, unkempt, and spends time in the self-imposed exile of his room. the preppy friends have been replaced by ruffians. And the school counselor calls to say your child has been chronically absent.

You wonder if these are the fleeting effects of adolescent restlessness or something more serious -- the initial pattern of drug use. You assume the former, dismissing the latter with a refrain of denial. "Oh, no. Not my son [or daughter]," you tell yourself. Then, indisputabe evidence slaps you in the face--a half-filled bottle of gin or vial of white powder if found beneath the bed, or the scent of marijuana escapes from under the door of your child's room. This is not tim efor denial, substance abuse counselors say. The situation requires swift action to prevent drug experimentation from taking that devastating leap to addiction.

"Sometime when you put the pieces of the puzzle together you realize things are getting out of hand," says Nathan Fears, who directs adolescent treatment and educaiton at Fair Oaks Hospital in Summit, N.J. "What turns a kid around is treatment, an investment of family time and sitting down and doing things differently. You have to show them you love them and care, but you also have to set limits."

One of the most important aspects of drug abuse is that it follows a progression, say rehabilitation experts. Drug experimentation can lead to frequent use, which, if not arrested, can lead to addiction. The symptoms vary from one drug to the next. Alcohol abuse can take months. With cocaine or its immediately addictive derivative, crack, the process can happen within days. What follows is a daily preoccupation with getting and using drugs.

"I started selling my jewelry and my nice leather skirts," says 20-year-old Camelia Jones from New Jersey, who is recovering from a crack habit. "i had wanted to go to college and be a nurse, but my motivation became less and less [as drug use increased]," she says. "I didn't want to do anything for myself but get high."

Parents are urged to intervene at the earliest sign of experimentation. The presence of drug paraphernalia and the persistence of behavioral changes commonly distinguish the symptoms of drug use from growing pains. In addition to having failing grades and inappropriate anger, a youth using crack might be losing weight and appear disheveled. A pipe might be found in his room.

Typically, the family is the first to suspect drug use, but slow to react. …