Adolescence is not easy. Teenagers face a double-whammy: they’re going through in internal physiological revolution while simultaneously learning the rules of society and coming to grips with the inevitable transition to adulthood. As parents, a great deal of this transformation can make your growing kid act distant, reactive, and for lack of a better word, just plain weird. The source of this new and unusual behavior is predominantly neurochemical. Intense internal and external influences barrage your teenager’s brain all day and night. Thankfully, most of us adults we have a selective memory, and we’ve forgotten the worst of the challenges and intricacies of adolescence.
Is it Typical Teen Behavior, or is it Addiction?
Reality check: your teen acts moody, lazy, and defiant. You read articles that say unequivocally that those classic signs of addiction? Is this true?
Okay, you think to yourself. Fine. But aren’t those behaviors and attitudes classic signs of teenagers in general?
Now you think to yourself, great. A conundrum. My teenagers might simply be going through typical changes, or my teenager might be falling into a negative pattern of substance abuse and addiction. The symptoms, according to the experts, are often identical.
As a parent, how can you tell the difference?
The answer is twofold. First, stay informed. Second, trust your instincts.
The seven warning signs below will help you validate your instincts. If any single one of them rings true for your teen, it’s time to have an honest talk with him or her about drug usage.
1. Abrupt Personality Change. Drug use often alters the core personality of your child. When they start using drugs, it’s common for a teen who has no history of dishonesty to start telling lies to cover their tracks. Drug use can also latent and undiagnosed depression or other mental health disorders. It can be challenging to identify which came first—the drug use or the mental disorder—but a mental health professional can help your teen get the help they need.
2. Medicine or Valuables Missing. Keep an eye on any prescription medication in your house that has the potential to be abused. This includes benzodiazepines, opiate pain medication, or amphetamines typically prescribed for ADD/ADHD. It medication suddenly goes missing, then someone, i.e. your teen, may be using them recreationally or taking them to sell. The same goes for valuables: people struggling with substance abuse and addiction may become so desperate that they’ll steal to get money to buy their next fix.
3. Physical Changes. A sudden change in appearance is one of the most obvious warning signs of drug use. A dramatic change in eating habits, resulting in weight gain or loss, is also common. Unusual or erratic sleep schedule may also indicate drug usage. Substances of abuse can cause physical symptoms like chronically red or watery eyes, abnormally sized pupils, constant sniffling/coughing. Shakes and tremors are also a strong indication of serious drug use.
4. Altered Emotional States. These typically appear once addiction takes root and affects your child at a deeper level. They may show increased nervousness, irritability, and lose interest in hobbies they once loved. It’s also common to withdraw from family, hide behind locked bedroom doors, or display outward signs of paranoia.
5. Unexplained Changes in the Teens’ Financial Situation. During the teen years, a new drug user can quickly become a drug dealer. They may sell valuables and empty their savings account to support their habit. In either situation, there’s almost always a change in the child’s financial situation. Keep an eye out for unexplained income or increasing requests for money.
6. Missed School or Dropped Grades. As drug or alcohol use becomes more serious, addiction may result in school attendance patterns changing and grades dropping. Teens struggling with substance abuse and addiction may show up late to school or not at all, even if they leave home on time. Regarding grades, addiction can cause them to drop precipitously. Good grades change to average or poor, and average grades can change to poor or failing.
7. Changes in Behavior and Friends. This is often one of the first changes visible when a teenager begins experimenting with drugs or alcohol. In a short amount of time, old friends fade away and new friends appear on the scene. Or, your teenager develops two distinct groups of friends and keeps them separate. As a parent, you need to keep up with these changing social dynamics. It’s your job to find out about the new friends and meet them. When you do meet them, don’t be judgmental — use your instincts.
Talk, Listen, Get Help
When you notice any of these changes in your teen, engage your teen in a transparent conversation about them. Don’t jump to conclusions or make snap judgments. Communication means respect, listening, and keeping yourself open to things you haven’t thought of. One big mistake is—with the noblest intentions—accidentally labeling mental health issues as addiction or substance abuse issues. The best way to discern between the two is to enlist the help and support of mental health professionals.
If you think your teen needs help, or if you need help deciphering their inexplicable new behaviors, pick up the phone and call us at Evolve. We’re experts at helping families and teens get their lives back on track.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.