substance use

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.


Parenting Orchids and Dandelions

By | NESCA Notes 2019

By: Nancy Roosa, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA

I recently evaluated a 15-year-old boy, who we’ll call Sam, whose parents brought him in due to some concerning new behaviors, including failing classes, disobeying his parents’ rules – particularly around curfew and technology use – and smoking marijuana on a daily basis. When meeting Sam, I was amazed at how engaging, polite and good-natured he was. It was hard to imagine this young man disobeying his parents and staying out all night, which he was also doing frequently.

Sam had grown up in an affluent and supportive family, the third of four children. The other three were, like their parents, easy-going, adaptable and successful – academically, socially and athletically. They were on the path to becoming independent and successful adults. Sam had always been a bit different. He was the child who had colic as an infant, sleep disturbances throughout childhood, separation anxiety at preschool, and extreme sensitivity to sensory stimuli. His parents cut tags out of his clothes, bought him loose-fitting pants, and avoided birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese’s – or almost anywhere there would be crowds of loud children, as these situations could reduce Sam to tears.

When evaluating Sam, I was impressed by his intelligence, quick reasoning and solid academic skills.  There was nothing obvious that standard neuropsychology tests uncovered. But Sam was also open and articulate about his difficulties. He explained that he was easily overwhelmed – “jangled,” he called it – in social situations, in a fast-paced classroom or on an athletic field. When he started ninth grade in a challenging parochial school, he was faced with more stressful situations, academically and socially. He became extremely anxious about tests and lengthy homework assignments, so he fell behind academically and developed pretty serious school anxiety. Given his sensitive nature, he was particularly likely to struggle in a class where the teacher was, in his words, “too strict,” or even “mean.” He wasn’t successful enough socially or athletically to sustain his self-esteem in these areas, particularly compared to his talented siblings. He found himself becoming angry and anxious, and he started using marijuana to calm himself. As he described it, getting high was the only time he felt happy and relaxed.

Sam was clearly struggling, easily meeting criteria for an anxiety disorder and a substance use disorder.  But I wanted to explain some of the “why” behind his struggles, so, in talking to his parents, I relied on the explanation put forth by Dr. W. Thomas Boyce, in his book, Orchids and Dandelions: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive. He explains that most children are like dandelions, born with sturdy, resilient temperaments so that they, like dandelions, grow and thrive wherever they land –  assuming there’s some minimal level of appropriate conditions. But about 20% of children are more like orchids. They are born with a very sensitive nervous system, which is highly attuned to all the stimulation in the world around them. Dr. Boyce found that for these children, lower levels of stress precipitated a full-fledged anxiety response, involving the release of stress hormones that create a Fight, Flight or Freeze response – an appropriate response for a life-threatening situation, but not much help when facing, say, a strict teacher or a hard test. These children are therefore much more likely to develop full-blown anxiety disorders. On the positive side, their high level of sensitivity to the world around them means they are typically very empathic and emotionally attuned. Like an orchid with careful nurturing, they will develop into exceptional adults.

Fortunately, many orchids do naturally gain resilience as they grow, according to Elaine Arons, Ph.D. In her book The Sensitive Child, she cites studies that find most children who are shy as preschoolers – suffering social and separation anxiety – will develop coping strategies and not appear shy by the time they reach school age. These orchids gain resilience without losing their sensitivity.

But this positive evolution requires good parenting. While dandelions do fine with the average “good-enough” mother, as famously defined by psychologist Donald Winnicott, orchids need parents to be just a bit better.

How does one do this? How can a well-meaning, good-enough parent help these orchids become better able to manage the squalls, large and small, that occur in any one’s life?

Fortunately, there is a wealth of research – contained in books and articles – on building resilience in children. Most emphasize that we need to allow children to struggle with challenges, even to the point of sometimes failing, so they learn that they can cope and succeed in the face of adversity. This message is clear from the title of several such books: e.g. The Blessing of the Skinned Knee: Using Timeless Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children, by Wendy Mogel and The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed by Jessica Lahey.

We also have a neurobiological explanation for this process. We know that continued exposure to a stressful situation allows the body to habituate and the terrible feelings – such as fear and panic – that accompany a stress response gradually recede. As this happens, the previously scary situation becomes routine, and the child’s self-confidence and willingness to tackle new risks grows. Every preschool teacher knows this. The crying child who is being left by his parents in an unfamiliar preschool will eventually calm down and start to enjoy himself. The process goes more quickly if parents calmly and confidently reassure the child, then leave. The parent who is also anxious, who hovers over the child, attempting to sooth his fears, only increases the child’s anxiety by sending the message that this IS a scary situation. This phenomenon was dramatically illustrated in a study by Susan Crockenberg and Esther Leerkes (Development and Psychopathology, 2006). They found that 6-month-old children had different levels of reactivity – or startle – in response to unfamiliar stimuli. These infants also showed differences in how much they tried to avoid the situation, versus distracting themselves while staying in the presence of the stimuli. Children with high reactivity and a tendency to withdraw from novel stimuli, along with parents who were less sensitive, were more likely to show high anxiety at 2.5 years of age. Exposure to challenge causes the body to habituate and builds resilience. Trying to avoid stressful situations only exacerbates fears.

However, this can be counterintuitive for parents of very sensitive children. In fact, the more attuned a parent is to his/her child’s sensitivity, the harder it becomes. Sam’s parents had always coddled him a bit more than their other children. Knowing that he didn’t like loud birthday parties, his mother tended to decline these invitations. When he became upset and started to cry at a soccer game, his father felt so sorry for him that he didn’t insist that Sam return the next week. This avoidance did not allow Sam to grow and master new situations, but instead narrowed his world.

This is not to say that Sam’s parents should have been less emotionally attuned. Rather, it’s important for parents of children like Sam to walk a fine line between exposing the child to moderate challenges that he can manage but do not overwhelm him. It’s also important that they stay calm themselves, empathizing with the child’s fears but reassuring him at the same time. Not an easy task.

Fortunately, Sam has many strengths, not the least of which are his sensitivity and his intelligence, as well as great artistic gifts. He also has a solid relationship with his parents, even though it has been quite strained of late. After our evaluation, Sam and his parents decided to place him in a therapeutic wilderness program so he could withdraw from daily pot use in a safe place and learn skills from therapists there, as well as learn from peers who were going through similar struggles. This coming year, he will not return to the challenging parochial school he attended for ninth grade and will instead start at an independent school that offers some academic supports and a flourishing arts program. Sam’s roots are well-established, and with a bit more awareness of the gifts and challenges inherent in his sensitive nature, he is expected to grow into a self-confident and resilient young man.


About the Author: 

Dr. Roosa has been engaged in providing neuropsychological evaluations for children since 1997. She enjoys working with a range of children, particularly those with autism spectrum disorders, as well as children with attentional issues, executive function deficits, anxiety disorders, learning disabilities, or other social, emotional or behavioral problems. Her evaluations are particularly appropriate for children with complex profiles and those whose presentations do not fit neatly into any one diagnostic box. As part of this process, Dr. Roosa is frequently engaged in school visits, IEP Team Meetings, home observations and phone consultations with collateral providers. Dr. Roosa has also consulted with several area schools, either about individual children or about programmatic concerns. She speaks to parent or school groups, upon request.

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and 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.