Not only do kids use drugs and
alcohol for different reasons, but they also use them in different
ways. And while most parents see any use as dangerous or just
plain wrong, it can still be useful to consider what different
levels of involvement with drugs can mean.
Looking at things from this perspective
can help a parent better “read” a specific situation,
preserve their credibility with an involved child, and generate
an appropriate (and effective) response.
- Experimental use. This is square one in the use-abuse matrix.
Here, kids are basically curious about drugs and their effects,
just like their first kiss or first car. They may look for a
chance to experiment, or just take advantage of one that presents
itself. For most kids, chemical use stops or stays at this level.
It isn’t inevitable that use must continue or increase. Whether
or not it does depends on specific reasons for experimenting,
on personal values and resources, and on how parents respond.
- Integrated use. If involvement does move beyond experimentation,
the next level involves more frequent use and greater risk. Still,
use tends to be casual (and mainly social), and everyday functioning
isn’t necessarily impaired. This level of use is comparable to
alcohol use by a social drinker. About 90 percent of the substance-using
population falls into the “experimental use” or “integrated
- Excessive use. Here, use often becomes obvious, as does
impairment. Day-to-day functioning can become difficult, as responsibilities
are blown off and relationships become strained. Family members
may find themselves making excuses for the user, or taking over
his/her tasks and obligations.
- Psychological/physical dependence.
Impairment is self-evident
at this stage, and use becomes an end in itself. A user’s behavior
is clearly affected, and performance in school or work usually
declines. Few friends remain who aren’t heavy users, and run-ins
with police and the courts become likely — if they haven’t already
We need to emphasize that many
other factors — social, economic, psychological, physiological
— also enter into the equation which complicate a true reading
of a person’s chemical involvement. Still, just because the equation
is complicated doesn’t mean it’s indecipherable — or unfixable.
Since all patterns of chemical
use have common elements, appropriate actions can be taken at
any stage to reduce the risk of greater involvement. And understanding
those factors and applying those options before they’re necessary
can reduce the risk of high-risk use ever taking place.