Addiction refers to a wide range of compulsive behaviors.

It is preventable disorder, yet one of the most challenging to cure. Addiction knows no age limit. And our children could be at risk unless we know what to look for, and how to protect them from it. And, sometimes, from themselves.

What is Addiction?

Addiction refers to a wide range of compulsive behaviors. Traditionally, addiction refers to the excessive use of substances, including alcohol; prescription and illegal drugs; cigarettes; and food.

Today addiction has a wider meaning for children and adolescents. It also includes an out-of-control attachment to the Internet and video games. To pornographic violence and sex. Even to texting on cell phones.

Behavior goes from normal to addictive when it becomes an uncontrollable habit. Once it becomes an addiction, that habit can lead to negative and harmful consequences.

In many cases, the behavior becomes physically and psychologically addictive. The young person’s body begins to crave the “high” that comes from using the substance. Or the “rush” that’s part of the behavior. With each use, more of the substance, or more of the behavior, is needed to achieve the feeling of that first use.

People of almost any age can become addicted to almost any pleasurable activity or stimulation. The desire for pleasure is normal and essentially human.

But when a person – of any age – loses control and needs the substance or behavior instead of simply wanting it, then it becomes an addiction. And it becomes an illness, one that most likely won’t go away without treatment. Or the commitment to beat it.

What Symptoms Should Parents Look For?

The symptoms of addiction in children will vary. It depends on the substance or behavior involved. What all addictions share are negative consequences.

Addictions change people in progressively negative ways. The changes can be physical. Or there can be subtle or dramatic changes in a child’s behavior and temperament.

What complicates things for parents is that healthy children and adolescents also go through changes as a natural part of growing up. And those changes are not always pleasant to watch – or live with – as your child moves toward maturity. Growth is a process of individual exploring and experimenting. And it’s challenging enough without the burden of an addiction.

Children and adolescents suffering from an addiction need parents who are willing to acknowledge, and respond to, the concern. The earlier the better.

Here are some of the warning signs of addiction in a child or adolescent:

  • The odor of alcohol or tobacco or other odd odors on the breath or skin.
  • A change in behavior, becoming more argumentative or isolating themselves.
  • Spending more than 20 hours a week on the Internet or playing video games.
  • Red eyes and chronic health complaints (flu-like aches and pains, upset stomach).
  • Changes in eating or sleeping patterns.
  • Loss of interest in school.
  • A drop in grades.
  • Skipping classes.
  • New friends (with little interest in families or school activities).
  • Chemical-soaked rags or papers.
  • Paint or other stains on clothing, hands or faces.
  • Feelings of loneliness.
  • Depression
  • Harmful or risky behaviors (such as breaking things, vandalism, stealing).
  • Hurting themselves (cutting their bodies).
  • Compulsive behaviors.
  • Eating disorders,

What Causes Addiction in Children?

There is a wide range of theories about the cause of addiction in young people. But no clear consensus. We do know, for instance, that teens may use substances because:

  • They want to fit in with friends or with certain groups.
  • They like the way it makes them feel.
  • They believe it makes them more grown up.
  • They are inclined to try new things and take risks.

Addictive tendencies can be found even in early childhood.  These tendencies may make a child more vulnerable to addictions:

Risk-takers. Children who are daredevils can come to crave and rely on the adrenaline rush they get from activities such as racing faster than others on bikes or skateboards, or climbing trees higher.

Experimenters. When young children (between ages nine and 12) experiment with drugs or alcohol, they have a much greater risk of later becoming addicted. The chemical effects damage young brains and impact overall growth and development.

Impulsiveness. Some children don’t learn how to control their impulses. They want instant gratification. They are impatient and intolerant of frustration. These children may have difficulty handling their feelings and controlling impulses toward addictive substances or activities.

Genetics. Many studies have proven that children of addicts are at a far greater risk of becoming addicts themselves.

Childhood Trauma. When children have suffered from physical, mental, or sexual trauma, they may turn to addictive behaviors or substances to help cope with the pain and stress. This is especially true if they have never been taught healthy coping strategies.

Social Alienation or Isolation. Children who feel isolated or socially alienated can be at risk for addictions. They may lack self-confidence, not knowing how to reach out to others for their emotional needs. They are more likely to turn to addictive behavior or substances to cope.

How is Addiction in Children Treated?

Addictions can be difficult to treat. This is true for patients of any age. Physical addictions can alter a person’s brain chemistry, depending on how long the abuse has been going on. Patients can also be resistant to treatment, feeling afraid or lacking the motivation it takes to change a behavior.

Most treatment for addictive behaviors is provided by psychologists, counselors, social workers, and other addiction specialists, as well as through specialized addiction treatment programs and clinics. These programs use a combination of motivational interviewing and cognitive-behavioral strategies to help reduce the instances of use.

Can Addiction in Children be Prevented?

The most helpful prevention programs focus on addressing the concerns of young people about the effects of drugs.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse suggests that “prevention programs should be tailored to address risks specific to population or audience characteristics” and may begin as young as pre-school.

When Should You Seek Help for Addiction in Your Child?

Adolescent addiction is not just a phase. Take any kind of addictive behavior seriously.

Talk openly with your child about the problem. Urge him or her to open up about their feeling and fears. Hold back judgment. It’s not a time for correction. It’s a time for support.

If you don't know what to do or if you feel uncomfortable talking about addiction with your child, ask for help from a pediatrician, psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor, or social worker.

Your family physician can help direct you to a mental health professional who specializes in diagnosing and treating childhood addictions.