Substance Use Disorder

Substance misuse disorder is a condition when a person loses control over their use of a substance such as drugs, alcohol or nicotine. There is help for treatment and recovery.

What Is Substance Use Disorder (SUD)?

Substance use disorder is a condition when people misuse or use too much of things like drugs or alcohol. It used to be called addiction. The condition also may be called substance misuse. It can affect children, teens and adults. Some types of things that can be misused include:

  • Alcohol
  • Inhalants
  • Marijuana
  • Nicotine
  • Prescription medicine
  • Street (illicit) drugs
  • Vaping

When a person loses control and needs the substance instead of just wanting it, the uncontrollable habit can become an illness. The body begins to crave the “high” that comes from using the substance. With each use, more of the substance is needed.

There is help and hope for people who have substance use disorder. Treatment, therapy and support is available for people with the condition and for their loved ones.

What Causes Substance Use Disorder in Children and Teens?

There are theories about what cause substance use disorder in children and teens, but no clear agreement. Sometimes children or teens may use substances because:

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

Sometimes children or teens have factors that can make them more at risk for substance use disorder. If your child does or has any of these signs, it does not mean they will have a substance use disorder. It just means they might be more vulnerable. You know your child best. If you are concerned, talk to your child's doctor.

Genetics. Many studies have proven that children of people who misuse substances are at a far greater risk also misusing substances.

Role modeling. Children and teens can learn to misuse substances if they see adults in their lives using them to cope with stress.

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

Risk-taking. 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.

Experimenting. When young children (ages nine and 12) experiment with drugs or alcohol, they have a much greater risk of later having a substance use disorder. 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 can't handle frustration. These children may have difficulty handling their feelings and controlling impulses toward substances.

Mental health. Children and teens may misuse substances to help deal with mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.

Childhood trauma. Children may turn to misusing substances to help cope with the pain and stress of physical, mental or sexual trauma. This is especially true if they have never been taught healthy coping strategies.

What Are Symptoms of Substance Use Disorders?

The symptoms in children and teens will vary. It depends on the substance involved. Substance use disorders change people in negative ways. The changes can be physical. There can be subtle or dramatic changes in a child’s behavior and temperament.

Healthy children and teens also go through changes as a natural part of growing up. Those changes are not always pleasant to watch – or live with – as your child matures. Growth is a process of individual exploring and experimenting. Children and teens need parents who are willing to acknowledge, and respond to, the concern.

Here are some warning signs of a child or teen with a substance use disorder:

  • Smell of alcohol or tobacco or other odd odors on the breath or skin
  • Arguing more or isolating themselves
  • Red eyes and chronic health complaints (flu-like aches and pains, upset stomach)
  • Changes in eating or sleeping
  • 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
  • Missing money

How Is Substance Use Disorder in Children and Teens Treated?

Early treatment offers the greatest chance for success. This is true for patients of any age. Substance use disorder can alter a person’s brain chemistry, depending on how long the use has been going on.

Nationwide Children's provides substance use treatment and counseling through the Big Lots Behavioral Health Pavilion.

When Should You Seek Help for Your Child?

Substance use disorder is not just a phase. Talk openly with your child about the problem. Urge them to open up about their feelings 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 substance misuse with your child, ask for help from a pediatrician, psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor or social worker.

Your family doctor can help direct you to a mental health professional.

Why Should I Choose Nationwide Children's to Treat My Child's Substance Use Disorder?

The Big Lots Behavioral Health Pavilion at Nationwide Children’s is unlike anyplace else. It is America’s largest center dedicated exclusively to child and teen behavioral and mental health on a pediatric medical campus. That means our team treats your child's mental and physical health in one place. In addition to substance use disorders, your child's care team has the knowledge and experience to treat other mental health concerns, including trauma.

The team can address problematic use patterns that are showing up, as well as severe substance use disorder. We offer an outpatient program and an intensive home based program for Franklin County residents. Behavioral Health partners with Adolescent Medicine's Substance Use Treatment and Recovery Program for medical or medication needs when appropriate.