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Johnny doesn’t follow curfew any longer, his grades are dropping and his circle of friends has changed. He seems to be depressed and has lost weight. He doesn’t seem to care about the things he used to and for some reason, has begun stealing money from family members. What’s worse, you suspect that one of your old prescription bottles is missing from your medicine cabinet, but you can’t be certain. Is this typical teenage behavior or is it something more?

Teens have had access to illegal drugs and alcohol for decades. It’s been glorified in movies, music lyrics and music videos, and many teens feel you have to do it to be accepted. However, teens are finding different ways to get high, one of which is prescription drug use. Prescription drug use continues to grow among teens across the country, and this may be in part due to the mindset behind taking prescription drugs: They are easy to get, free and because these drugs are FDA approved, they have to be safer than illegal street drugs.

So where do you begin? Where do you go if you suspect your child is using drugs and/or alcohol, or even prescription drugs? Start at school. Your child spends 7 to 8 hours at school, almost a third of their day, with school staff. These folks see and speak to your child in the hallways, classrooms, cafeteria, clubs, sporting events and school activities. School staff has the ability to see inconsistencies in performance or changes in behavior that may fly under the radar of a family member. In addition, changes in friends, personal appearance and/or personality may be more obvious to trained professionals who have been teaching, coaching or counseling a student three or four years and can speak to such discrepancies.

Schools typically have a triage system in place to assist students who may be veering off course. This triage system is set up so that coaches, teachers, cafeteria workers and administration can go to a central person to share concerns and get advice on how to handle a situation. This central person is the school counselor.

A school counselor is a master’s level, certified professional trained in a variety of areas including individual and group counseling techniques, theories of counseling and drug/alcohol use. Often times, school counselors become experts on certain trends that occur in their particular schools, such as self injurious behavior, bullying or drug abuse. And as new classes of students come each September, so do new issues. School counselors stay on top of these issues, take part in professional development opportunities and stay active with national and state school counseling organizations. School counselors have access to many resources that a parent may not have access to, and as a result, can steer a parent in the right direction to get the help they need. Programs are available in the community or in the school to help students struggling with drug/alcohol abuse, and school counselors can make connections, find financial assistance and help families throughout the entire process. 

A school counselor is a first line of defense, a “go to” person and an “Oh my goodness, what should I do?” person. Parents should put their school counselor’s name and phone number on their refrigerator, in their wallet or in their cellular contact list, so that when in need of assistance, the contact information is readily available.   

Where do you begin if you suspect drug/alcohol use in your child? Start at school with the school counselor. They are your sounding board, your beacon of hope, your resource connector and ultimately, your life line.

Stephanie LoBiondo, MS, North Atlantic Region VP, American School Counselor Association

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