COVID, Kids and Substance Abuse: It’s a Dangerous Mixture    

Adults are not the only ones feeling stressed, anxious and afraid these days.  Young kids and teens are feeling it, too.  This is a “perfect storm” that can drive up substance abuse by our youth if we are not vigilant.

Leigh Moerdyke, LMSW, CPS-M from Arbor Circle, provides some insights about the impact that this stressful time can have on addictive behavior in kids, and how parents can help.

Does substance use have a different impact on kids than it does on adults?

Yes, it does.  Research has shown that kids who use alcohol or drugs before the age of 19 are four times more likely to struggle with addiction.  That’s because the brain goes through a pruning process, especially during the teenage years.   It’s getting rid of the neuropathways it doesn’t think it needs any more, and strengthening the ones that it relies on every day.  So a young person who conditions him or herself to need alcohol or drugs will have a much harder time rewiring the brain when he or she is an adult.

With so many entertainment options shut down or at limited capacity, is substance abuse less of a threat now for our kids?

Actually, I believe the threat is greater now for two reasons.  One is that kids, just like adults, are stressed.  They often look for ways to self-medicate that will eliminate their psychological discomfort.  If drugs or alcohol are available, there’s a great temptation to just give them a try.  And today’s drugs, like opiates, can become addictive very quickly.   They are high risk.  Additionally, the very fact that so many entertainment venues are closed means that kids are bored.  And we all know what happens then!  Kids start looking for fun where they can find it…and that might include looking in a bottle.  So now is not the time to let down our guard.

What warning signs might indicate that my child is getting involved with drugs or alcohol?

The list of warning signs for teens includes lying, withdrawing, hiding things, having money they shouldn’t have, or going through money faster than they normally would, changes in friends, mood swings, and being secretive.  And yes, I know…many of those behaviors are synonymous with being a teenager!  But regardless, if you are seeing one or more of them, it’s time to have a conversation.  Maybe they are getting into a substance abuse situation.  Or maybe there’s something else going on.  Don’t assume it’s just normal teen behavior.  Those signals mean you need to reach out.

What can I do to help my kids get out of situations where drugs and alcohol are being used?

Kids are especially vulnerable when they feel at risk of becoming isolated from their friend groups.  Therefore, you can’t just tell them to say “no” to drugs and alcohol, because that can make them a target for bullying or isolation.  For kids, “no” does nothing to mitigate the risk.  A better approach is to help your child practice excuses that will keep him or her out of the situation without feeling alienated.  In social work terms, we call these “peer refusal skills.”   Essentially, you are helping your child find a scapegoat to deflect blame when he or she doesn’t want to participate.  For example, “My mom would ground me if she heard I was drinking.”   Or, “My coach would kick me off the team, and you know how much I love soccer.”   This is not about allowing kids to escape accountability.  Instead, it is a way to strengthen their backbones without creating emotional damage.  The other important thing to work out with your kids is a disguised code that says, “Come get me…now!” Maybe your child promises to send a cat emoji with an address, for example, if he or she needs to get out of a situation.  You, in turn, promise to come immediately with no questions today.  Tomorrow, yes, but not today.  The important thing is to have an escape hatch that your child will use.  Later, after he or she is out of the situation, you can talk about how to avoid getting into a similar problem in the future.

What should I do if I see someone else’s kid is involved in something I know the parents wouldn’t approve?

Even as adults, we’re not eager to be called tattle-tales.  But if nothing else, this pandemic hopefully has reminded us that we cannot go it alone.  The reality is that parents need to be willing to talk to each other, and do the same things for other kids that they would do for their own.  Help each other by sharing information and enforcing the same rules.   Help each other by getting kids out of situations when they ask for help.

Where can I get more support or information?

There are several excellent online resources.  One of my personal favorites is  There are wonderful resources on this site, including the Thriving Families link.   On Facebook, I recommend Building Resilient Youth.  They have a weekly Zoom lunch ‘n’ learn.  Arbor Circle also offers parenting classes that can help.  You can learn more at







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