coping skills

Risk Factors & Warning Signs of Substance Use

By | NESCA Notes 2022

By Miranda Milana, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

It is estimated that approximately one third of adults in the United States have met criteria for an alcohol use disorder at some point in their lives, while approximately 10% have met criteria for another substance use disorder. While these numbers are staggering, what is even more astonishing is the fact that consuming substances before the age of 14 increases the likelihood of abusing substances later in life by 400%. In fact, The National Child Traumatic Stress Network reports that 9 out of 10 individuals who abuse substances began using these substances before the age of 18. So, what are the risk factors and early signs to watch out for? What can you do to help?

Risk Factors:

  • Family history—if you have a family history of addiction, it is important to talk about this with your children just as you would have a conversation about a family history of cancer, diabetes, or any other mental illness. Determine when and how to approach this conversation by talking with your pediatrician.
  • Comorbid diagnoses—having an existing mental health diagnosis (e.g., ADHD, depression, anxiety) increases the chances that one will use and abuse substances later in life. Many individuals start using substances as a method of self-medicating if their mental health symptoms are not well managed.
  • Exposure—having easy access to substances, being exposed to peer groups or family members who use substances, or being exposed to media messages encouraging substance use can also increase the risk of substance use and abuse.
  • Additional risk factors include poor coping skills, academic failure, chaotic home or peer environments, as well as impulsivity and risk taking behaviors.

Warning Signs to Watch for:

  • Unexplained and/or extreme mood swings
  • Dilated pupils/bloodshot eyes
  • Changes in appetite
  • Change in sleep patterns or levels of fatigue
  • Changes in friends
  • Loss of interest in previously preferred hobbies
  • Being secretive about friends and activities
  • Withdrawing from family members and loved ones
  • Not respecting curfew or breaking other house rules
  • Running away from home or sneaking out
  • Stealing or having unexplained amounts of money
  • Increased absences from school
  • Decline in grades
  • Increase in behavioral problems

How to Help:

  • Start the conversation when it is appropriate. Talking to your pre-teen or teen about the effects of substances and alcohol/drug laws is essential in keeping the lines of communication open. Ask them first about their level understanding and what they have already learned or heard about.
  • Increase coping skills—having appropriate communication skills, positive social-emotional connections, strong self-esteem, and confidence in dealing with peer pressure are all extremely beneficial in helping children and teens navigate adolescence. If your child struggles in one or more of these areas, it is important to target these vulnerabilities early on through the appropriate therapeutic supports (i.e., psychotherapy, social skills groups, school counseling, occupational therapy, executive function coaching).
  • If you are concerned your child is using substances, you may contact their pediatrician or find support through SAMHSA’s national helpline (call 1-800-662-HELP or text HELP4U to 435748 to receive information on local treatment facilities, support groups, and local community organizations).


Grant BF, Goldstein RB, Saha TD, et al. Epidemiology of DSM-5 Alcohol Use Disorder: Results From the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions III. JAMA Psychiatry. 2015;72(8):757–766. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2015.0584

Grant BF, Saha TD, Ruan WJ, et al. Epidemiology of DSM-5 Drug Use Disorder: Results From the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions–III. JAMA Psychiatry. 2016;73(1):39–47. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2015.2132


About the Author

Dr. Miranda Milana provides comprehensive evaluation services for children and adolescents with a wide range of concerns, including attention deficit disorders, communication disorders, intellectual disabilities, and learning disabilities. She particularly enjoys working with children and their families who have concerns regarding an autism spectrum disorder. Dr. Milana has received specialized training on the administration of the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS).

Dr. Milana places great emphasis on adapting her approach to a child’s developmental level and providing a testing environment that is approachable and comfortable for them. She also values collaboration with families and outside providers to facilitate supports and services that are tailored to a child’s specific needs.

Before joining NESCA, Dr. Milana completed a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at Boston Children’s Hospital in the Developmental Medicine department, where she received extensive training in the administration of psychological and neuropsychological testing. She has also received assessment training from Beacon Assessment Center and The Brenner Center. Dr. Milana graduated with her B.A. from the University of New England and went on to receive her doctorate from William James College (WJC). She was a part of the Children and Families of Adversity and Resilience (CFAR) program while at WJC. Her doctoral training also included therapeutic services across a variety of settings, including an elementary school, the Family Health Center of Worcester and at Roger Williams University.

Dr. Milana grew up in Maine and enjoys trips back home to see her family throughout the year. She currently resides in Wrentham, Massachusetts, with her husband and two golden retrievers. She also enjoys spending time with family and friends, reading, and cheering on the Patriots, Bruins, Red Sox, and Celtics.​


Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.


To book an appointment with Dr. Miranda Milana, please complete our Intake Form today. For more information about NESCA, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.


The Benefits of Sensory-based Play

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Madelyn (Maddie) Girardi, OTD, OTR/L
Occupational Therapist, NESCA

The importance of play for child development

Play is considered an essential aspect of child development as it contributes to cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being. As a pediatric occupational therapist, play is an integral part of my job. When children have opportunities to play, this allows them to build their creativity and imagination, resolve conflicts and learn self-advocacy skills. Through play, children develop new abilities that lead to enhanced confidence and resiliency, skills crucial for navigating day to day challenges. Play allows kids to practice decision-making skills, discover areas of interest and engage in passions. (Ginsburg, 2007).

 What is sensory-based play?

Sensory play can be described as any play activity that stimulates an individual’s sensory system. The sensory system includes touch (tactile), smell (olfactory), taste (gustatory), sight (visual), hearing (auditory), balance (vestibular) and movement (proprioception). Common examples include sensory bin or sandbox play, play with shaving cream, finger paint and/or food, use of a balance beam, ball pit, and/or swings, sound tubes, and so much more!

Why is sensory play beneficial?

While we know that play is a critical part of child development, incorporating a multi-sensory approach into play activities can be particularly beneficial. When activities are fun and meaningful – our senses are engaged – we learn best!

  • Promotes learning – children who engage multiple senses to accomplish a task are better able to remember and recall learned information.
  • Facilitates exploration, creativity and curiosity in children who may be seeking, or avoiding, certain types of stimuli.
  • Allows for strengthening of the brain pathways and connections that allow for efficient sensory integration.
  • Promotes self-regulation by allowing for interaction with different mediums that may be calming for the child (Educational Playcare, 2016).

What kinds of OT skills can be targeted through sensory play?

  • Sensory processing skills
  • Fine motor skills
  • Gross motor skills
  • Feeding skills
  • Body awareness
  • Motor planning
  • Visual perceptual skills
  • Communication and play skills
  • Self-regulation and coping skills


Educational Playcare. (2016, October 27). Why Sensory Play is Important for Development.

Ginsburg, K. R. (2007). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and
maintaining strong parent-child bonds. Pediatrics119(1), 182-191.

To learn more about Maddie Girardi, watch this video interview between NESCA Occupational Therapists Sophie Bellenis, OTD, OTR/L, and Maddie Girardi, OTD, OTR/L.

About the Author
Madelyn (Maddie) Girardi is a Licensed Occupational Therapist in Massachusetts with experience in both school-based and outpatient pediatric settings. Maddie received her undergraduate degree in Exercise Science/Kinesiology at The College of Charleston in South Carolina and  earned her Doctorate degree in Occupational Therapy from The MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston.

Maddie is a passionate therapist with professional interest in working with young children with neurodevelopmental disorders, fine and gross motor delays and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

To book an appointment or to learn more about NESCA’s Occupational Therapy Services, please fill out our online Intake Form, email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.


Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.