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Posted February 23, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Signs of trouble: Police say talk to children, watch for drug abuse

Strasburg Police Chief Timothy Sutherly
Strasburg Police Chief Timothy Sutherly holds a sawed-off shotgun and a table of confiscated drug evidence and paraphernalia his department has recovered in the past year. Parents need to talk to their children about drug use, the officer says, and know the signs. Rich Cooley/Daily

marijuana buds
Sutherly holds marijuana buds. Pot is a gateway drug to other more serious ones, he says. Rich Cooley/Daily

powdered cocaine
Sutherly holds powdered cocaine taken following an arrest. Rich Cooley/Daily

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By Elizabeth Wilkerson -- Daily Staff Writer

Telling the difference between typical teenage angst and warning signs of drug use can be tricky for parents.

The key, according to area law enforcement and drug education professionals, is for parents to know their children and be able to spot changes in their moods, behavior and habits.

Clare Ruysen, educational programs coordinator at Community and Law Enforcement Against Narcotics Inc., said sudden changes in interests or friends can signal drug use in teens. Teens using drugs may be less sociable, more moody or become defensive more easily, she said.

Strasburg Police Chief Timothy Sutherly said falling grades, trouble concentrating, misbehavior while in school, depression, anxiety and aggressive or paranoid behavior are also signs of drug use. Sleeping or coming home late, hanging out with people their parents don't know or avoiding their parents when they come home can be signs of trouble, too, Ruysen said.

"And, it's obviously complicated because some teenagers can be like that anyway," she said.

If a child has been using drugs for an extended period, parents can "actually start to see appearance changes," such as dramatic weight loss or gain, Sutherly said.

Marijuana is the area's primary problem drug, Sutherly said, but police are also beginning to see a lot of prescription drug abuse. About 50 percent of teens use illegal drugs, he said, and about 25 percent use "the more illicit drugs, other than marijuana."

"And, of course, pot's usually just the start of it," he said. "It's the gateway drug."

Ruysen said alcohol, which is often overlooked because it's legal, is often illegally used by teens. It's in most houses, she said, and parents need to be aware of how much they have and where they keep it.

Drugs are "just so much more accessible now," Sutherly said, and "a lot of the things we're doing is trying to keep the dealers out of here." Drugs become more accessible as the number of dealers goes up, he said.

Parents should keep tabs on changes in their child, Ruysen said, as they are in the best position to know how the child has changed. Though the conversations can be challenging, parents need to talk to their children about their changing behaviors or habits, she said.

"You have to talk to your kids," she said, because, when teens start using drugs their hope is that their parents won't notice or will avoid dealing with it.

Don't open the conversation with a defensive tone or by being confrontational, she advised. Rather, "just kind of make it as easy as possible for the kid to open up," she said.

Parents should "just sit down and let [children] know it's OK to talk to them," Sutherly said. The main thing, he said, is to listen.

"Don't be afraid to listen to your kids," he said. "Be calm, and don't overreact to what they're telling you.

"You don't want them to shut you out. You've got to be careful how you breach that subject."

When approaching such talks, parents need to be comfortable with what they know, and that may mean doing some research before talking to their children, Ruysen said. Parents shouldn't be intimidated by the idea of getting knowledge from outside resources, she said.

Preventative talks should start early, Sutherly said, because the sooner parents start talking to their children about drugs, the longer those lessons are with them. Adolescence is a time of significant physical and emotional changes, he said, and adolescents open to a variety of influences.

"The more the parents are involved, the less likely they'll cross that line," he said.

Ruysen said parents should be aware of and understand what their children already know about drugs and where they're getting that information. If teens receive information and resources from their parents, they're more likely to listen to them than to their adolescent peers, she said.

When to get community mental health services or law enforcement officials involved is "up to each parent," Sutherly said. But, "once it gets to the point that they can't control their kids, or they feel threatened by their kids, or they feel their kids are in danger," it's likely time to see outside help, he said.

Ruysen said CLEAN Inc. offers classes for parents and teens, and is always willing to take calls and answer questions. More information on the organization is available at www.cleaninc.org.

Contact Elizabeth Wilkerson at ewilkerson@nvdaily.com

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