Helping your child navigate the choppy waters of adolescence is probably one of the most difficult parenting tasks of all.  Teens are hard-wired to stretch their wings, try new things, and take risks to learn about themselves and grow into young adults.  Unfortunately, experimenting with mind-altering substances is a dangerous temptation many teens find irresistible and consider one of their “rites of passage”.

As a parent, the mere thought of your child using street drugs can be terrifying.  Being open to the possibility and increasing your awareness are two of the most important things you can do to effectively intervene and help your teen if he or she ventures down this precarious path.

This brief guide is designed to help you know what to look for and what to do if you suspect your child is abusing illicit drugs.  

What exactly are “illicit” drugs? 

Essentially, any drug used illegally is considered “illicit” – even legally prescribed medications used for recreational purposes.  This guide, however, will focus on popular “street”, “club”, and “hard” drugs including:

  • Hallucinogens (e.g. LSD, PCP, psilocybin, mescaline)
  • Cannabinoids (marijuana, hashish)
  • Stimulants (e.g. cocaine, methamphetamine)
  • Opioids (e.g. heroin, opium)
  • Club drugs (e.g. ecstasy, rohypnol, ghb, ketamine)
  • Anabolic steroids   

Illicit drugs come in many forms – e.g. pills, powder, liquids – and administered in a variety of ways – e.g. smoked, injected, swallowed, or snorted.   To make things even more complicated, every drug within the categories listed above have multiple street names.  Many of these names sound completely innocent, such as “brown sugar” for heroin, “chalk” for methamphetamine, and “soap” for GHB.   

Adolescent Illicit Drug Abuse Statistics

Following are just a few facts, statistics, and survey reports pertaining to illicit drug abuse in teens:

  • Over 8% of eighth graders reported using illicit drugs in a 2015 survey
  • According to a survey conducted by the National Institute of Drug abuse, at least 1 in 5 high school seniors reported using marijuana in the previous 30 days
  • Parental involvement is the best way to prevent substance abuse in teens
  • 33% of parents feel powerless in preventing their teen from using drugs
  • Long term use of some street drugs can cause serious damage to vital organs, particularly the heart, liver, and brain
  • Nearly 1 in 2 teens have used an illicit drug at least once by the time they’re a senior in high school
  • Marijuana is the most common drug of abuse among teens

Looking for and Recognizing the Signs of Illicit Drug Abuse

The warning signs of illicit drug abuse can vary significantly depending on the type of drug being used.  However, there are some general warning signs of substance abuse that frequently occur regardless, such as secretive behavior and mood changes.

One of the key things to remember when looking for signs of illicit drug abuse is this:

  • Any changes in your teen’s normal behavior, mood, or personality is a potential red flag for illicit drug abuse.

General signs of illicit drug abuse may include:

  • Secretive behavior / sneaking around
  • Spending increasing amounts of time alone in his or her room
  • Increased need or demand for privacy
  • Borrowing, stealing, or selling valuables to get money (for drugs)
  • Mood swings
  • Erratic behavior
  • Irritability or agitation
  • Drop in grades
  • Skipping school or work
  • Changes in sleep or appetite
  • Lying
  • Decrease in personal hygiene and grooming

Signs pertaining to the category of illicit drug:

Hallucinogens:

  • Perceptual distortions involving space and time
  • Visual hallucinations
  • Euphoria
  • Paranoia
  • A sense that things aren’t real
  • Disorientation
  • Disturbing flashbacks
  • Anxiety
  • Dizziness
  • Depression

Cannabinoids:

  • Frequent use of air fresheners, incense, perfume or cologne
  • Rolling papers, pipes, bongs, small baggies
  • Lack of motivation; lethargy
  • Paranoia
  • Poor coordination
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Dry mouth
  • Increased appetite / Cravings for junk food
  • Slowed reaction time
  • Laughing for no reason; acting silly
  • Tell-tale smell in room, hair, clothing
  • Anxiety or feelings of panic

Stimulants:

  • Exhilaration
  • Increased energy
  • Low appetite / Rapid weight loss
  • Staying awake for lengthy periods of time
  • Insomnia
  • Restlessness
  • Anxiety
  • Violent behavior
  • Paranoia
  • Psychosis
  • Skin sores
  • Decaying teeth
  • Dizziness
  • Frequent sniffing or nose bleeds

Opioids:

  • Euphoria
  • Sleepiness
  • Confusion
  • Fatigue
  • Slurred speech
  • Slowed breathing
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Track marks

Club Drugs:

  • Excitement
  • Euphoria
  • Memory loss
  • Slurred speech
  • Lowered inhibition
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Confusion
  • Memory problems
  • Paranoia
  • Aggressive or violent behavior
  • Sweating / chills
  • Drinking large amounts of water
  • Dilated pupils
  • Hallucinations
  • Clenched teeth or jaw
  • Sleepiness

Anabolic Steroids:

  • Paranoia
  • Aggressive or violent behavior
  • Hostility or rage (“roid rage”)
  • Irritability
  • Physical changes (e.g. breast development or hair loss in males; development of facial hair or a deeper voice in females)

The list above is far from complete, but it should give you a good idea of what to look for.  It’s important to remember that things are all potential warning signs of illicit drug abuse, as most of these could be caused by something else such as an undiagnosed mental health disorder or a medical condition.

Knowing the First Steps to Take   

If you know for sure, or at least have very good reason to suspect, that your teen is abusing illicit drugs, don’t assume it’s just a phase or that the problem will go away on its own.  Turing a blind eye or engaging in wishful thinking are very risk when it comes to your teen.  Instead, choose to be proactive by taking the following three steps:

1 – Talk to your teen.  Set aside any negative emotions and have an honest and calm conversation, expressing your concerns.  Don’t lecture, scold, or angrily confront – that approach will just cause your teen to become defensive or tune you out.  Approach the conversation with compassion and a genuine willingness to listen to your child.

2 – Set up an appointment for an evaluation.  Even if your child openly admits to using illicit drugs, an evaluation will be immensely helpful, especially if underlying issues are fueling the drug abuse.  There are several options for this.

One option is to your family doctor or child’s pediatrician.  He or she can do a physical examination, including lab tests to check for substances in your child’s system.  Keep in mind that not all substances are detected by standard tests or if too much time has passed.  Your doctor may also be able to give you a referral or recommendation for drug rehab.

Another option is to have your child evaluated by a mental health professional, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist.  A mental health evaluation can help determine if your child has any emotional issues or a mental health disorder, such as bipolar disorder or anxiety, that may be playing a role in his or her drug use.  Your teen may be using illicit drugs to cope with painful emotions or distressing symptoms.

A third option for an evaluation is to contact a drug and alcohol treatment center.

3 – Get your child into treatment.  Once your child has been evaluated, you’ll be given treatment recommendations and options.  With drug abuse, treatment options will vary depending on your child’s needs as well as the severity of his or her drug abuse.  Treatment for illicit drug abuse may include:

  • Individual or group therapy or drug counseling – This first level of treatment usually involves weekly sessions lasting one to two hours.  It may also be incorporated into a more intensive level of treatment (discussed below).
  • Dual diagnosis treatment – This treatment is highly recommended if your child has been diagnosed with a mental health disorder in addition to a substance use disorder. Treatment focuses on treating both disorders, rather than focusing on only one.
  • Drug rehabilitation – Drug rehab can occur at various levels of intensity depending on your child’s needs and severity of the problem. (More on this below.)
  • Medication – Medication may be prescribed for your teen help alleviate withdrawal symptoms, reduce agitation or psychotic symptoms caused by a substance, or to help treat a co-occurring mental health disorder.
  • Family therapy – Drug abuse impacts the whole family. Also, when there are problems at home some teens start using illicit drugs to cope, forget, or numb the emotional pain.  Family therapy can help address these issues.

Supporting and Encouraging Your Child

The world of illicit drugs can be dark and scary for any parent.  The path to recovery can be rocky, especially for the first few weeks or months.  Your involvement, support, and encouragement are three of the most valuable things you can give your teen during this challenging time – even if your relationship has been damaged or strained (which isn’t uncommon in this situation).

Following are several ways you can support and encourage your teen:

  • Be present in your teen’s life. Physically and emotionally
  • Be available and willing to listen to what your teen has to say
  • Show genuine compassion and empathy for what your teen is going through. Be willing to try to see and understand things from your teen’s point of view
  • Don’t pressure your teen to talk or open up
  • Be respectful in your actions and words. For example, avoid criticizing, talking over, or talking down to him or her
  • Educate yourself about illicit drug abuse and addiction, as well as the recovery process
  • Actively participate in your teen’s treatment and recovery
  • Spend quality time with your teen and show a genuine interest in his or her life
  • Strive to stay calm and keep any negative feelings – such as anger, disappointment, or fear – in check
  • Create a home environment that will support your teen’s recovery. Keep any prescription medication locked in a cabinet or drawer, any alcohol where your teen can’t access it
  • Be a good role model for your teen
  • If your teen relapses, don’t over-react, ridicule, or judge – remind yourself that recovery is hard work
  • Be willing to address any issues of your own that may be creating conflict or stress in your relationship with your teen

What to Do When Things Escalate

Illicit drugs can cause severe mood swings, erratic behavior, violent outbursts, and even suicidal thoughts and behavior in teens.  Their impact can be highly unpredictable and things can escalate quickly, creating a precarious and potentially dangerous situation.  As a parent, it’s crucial to have a plan in place to ensure everyone’s safety.  Things you can do include:

  • Contact your child’s treatment provider
  • Enlist the help of a close family member or friend for support or assistance
  • Take your child to the nearest hospital emergency room (if you can transport him or her safely)
  • Call 911

When Individual Therapy isn’t Enough  

Recovering from illicit drug abuse can be very difficult.  In many cases, weekly individual therapy or drug counseling isn’t enough to get and keep your teen on the path to recovery.  If your child:

  • Is continuing to abuse illicit drugs or other substances
  • Lacks a stable support system
  • Has a co-occurring mental health disorder
  • Is actively contemplating suicide or making suicide attempts or gestures
  • Is psychotic or manic
  • Is unable to function at all or without frequent assistance

then it’s time to consider a more intensive level of treatment.  This may involve:

  • Outpatient drug rehab
  • Day treatment / Intensive outpatient treatment (IOP) / Partial hospitalization
  • Residential or inpatient drug rehab
  • Hospitalization

Outpatient Rehab – This level of treatment is a step above weekly therapy or drug counseling.  Although programs vary somewhat, clients often attend 3 times a week for 3 hours per session. Adolescents typically live at home and are usually able to attend school with minimal interruption.

Day Treatment – This level of treatment, also often called intensive outpatient treatment (IOP) or partial hospitalization is a step up from outpatient rehab.  Adolescents go to treatment daily, usually for 4 hours per day, and attend school at least part time.  They live at home or, if additional support is needed, in a sober living facility.

Residential or Inpatient Drug Rehab – Residential drug treatment, also often referred to as inpatient rehab, involves having your teen live at a non-hospital treatment facility 24/7.  This intensive level of treatment may last anywhere from 30 to 120 days, depending on your child’s treatment needs and progress.  In addition to receiving treatment on a full-time basis, one of the greatest advantages of residential rehab is being in a drug- and alcohol-free environment round the clock. 

Day treatment and residential treatment can be particularly beneficial for adolescents who have a dual diagnosis.

Hospitalization – Hospitalization may be necessary if your child is suicidal, psychotic, manic, or in need of 24/7 medical monitoring due to an intentional or accidental overdose or a severe reaction to a substance until stable.

Each of these more intensive levels of treatment (except for hospitalization on a medical, rather than psychiatric, unit) usually provides a variety of therapeutic activities, including individual and / or group therapy.  Family therapy may also be offered depending on the program.

Taking Care of Yourself

Helping your teen get clean from illicit drugs – and addressing any related issues to his or her drug abuse – is a huge challenge for any parent.  It will take a toll on you – emotionally, physically, and mentally.  In order to ensure that you’re there for your teen, you need to take good care of yourself too.  Following are a few things you can do:

  • Surround yourself with supportive people – friends, family, church, a therapist, a support group
  • Practice healthy and effective ways to manage your stress – regular exercise, meditation, yoga, and relaxation exercises are great for reducing stress
  • Get plenty of sleep and rest
  • Make time for yourself

Lastly, no matter how bleak things may look, don’t let go of hope or give up on your teen.  It may take a lot of time and effort, and there will likely be some bumps, tears, and disappointment along the way.   But there is a light at the end of this tunnel, as countless teens and their parents have found!