Ten Signs a Teen is Abusing Substances

Teenagers experiment. Teenagers push boundaries. Teenagers take risks they shouldn’t. Teenagers hang around with the people their parents warn them against – partially because of the warning – and teenagers get in cars they shouldn’t get in with those same people they shouldn’t have been hanging around in the first place.

Adults know all these things because – news flash – every adult on the planet was a teenager once. One set of behaviors that can turn from seemingly innocent dabbling to dangerous habit in almost the blink of an eye is experimentation with illegal substances. Parents need to know the signs of substance abuse so they can nip it in the bud before it becomes a lifelong struggle that can lead to a lifetime of pain and possibly an early death.

The Top Ten Signs of Substance Abuse in Teens

  1. An abrupt change in friends, relationships, and favorite hangouts.
  2. Skipping class, poor grades, and trouble at school, when none of this was happening before.
  3. Loss of interest in activities that your teenager once loved, such as sports, school clubs, and other extracurricular activities.
  4. Abrupt personality and character changes. A teen who’s never lied or kept things from you might start doing so in order to hide their substance abuse. They may also be secretive, hide behind their bedroom door, and get into family conflicts when this never happened before.
  5. Missing money and valuables. When experimentation turns to abuse, teenagers may take money to buy illegal substances or sell valuable household items to get money to buy drugs.
  6. Missing medication. A teen who abuses substances may raid your medicine cabinet for prescription drugs. This includes benzodiazepines, opiate pain medication, or amphetamines prescribed for ADD/ADHD.
  7. Physical Changes. Sudden changes in appearance, sudden wait gain or loss, or extreme changes in sleeping habits – sleeping far too much, or not sleeping at all – can be signs of substance abuse. Other physical signs include chronically red or watery eyes, dilated pupils, constant sniffing or coughing, and unusual shakes or tremors.
  8. Emotional Changes. Increased nervousness, irritability, or extreme reactivity can be signs of substance abuse. Teens may also display signs of paranoia, and appear unnaturally moody, depressed, or lethargic. Teens may appear to lose motivation to do anything – not just sports or hobbies.
  9. Extreme glorification or pre-occupation with alcohol or drug lifestyles. This can show up in the music they listen to, clothing they wear, stickers on their school notebooks, and decorations in their room.
  10. Unexplained changes in their financial situation can be the result of substance abuse. A new substance abuser can change into a drug dealer in a matter of months, and sometimes weeks. If your teen suddenly has a lot of cash on hand they can’t explain, or empties their savings account with no explanation, the money may either be coming from or going to drugs.

Source: Early Detection of Illicit Drug Use in Teenagers, Ali et al. Innovations In Clinical Neuroscience, December 2011

What You Can Do: Talk to Your Teen and Get Professional Help

The single most important thing you can do if you see any of the signs listed above is talk to your teen. Don’t jump to conclusions but do trust your gut and use your common sense. If your teen gets instantly defensive, angry, and storms out of the room, stomps up the stairs, and slams the bedroom door, you may be on to something – but that’s not proof. Like many of the signs listed above – changes in friends, changes in habits, changes in appearance – that mini-tantrum may be a sign of typical teen moodiness and hormonal instability. But on the other hand, it might not – it may be a clear sign of the emotional extremes related to illegal substance abuse. If your gut tells you something wrong is going on, even if your teen denies it to the moon and back, your most prudent course of action is to seek professional help. Make an appointment with a mental health professional who specializes in substance use disorders, and have your teenager tested for drugs of abuse: tests don’t lie, and a professional can tell you if your teenager’s behavior is typical, related to a separate emotional disorder, or identical to the classic signs of illegal substance abuse.