Article at a Glance

  • You can tell normal teen behavior from signs of substance abuse by looking for larger patterns and supporting evidence.
  • Many of the signs aren’t a sure sign of substance abuse, but they are behaviors that parents should monitor closely.
  • If you think your child is using drugs, educate yourself and look for additional help.

Sometimes it can be hard to tell what is normal teenage behavior and what is a sign of drug or alcohol abuse. During the teen years our bodies change so quickly. Our brains are still developing and surging hormones can cause dramatic mood swings.

Sometimes things like changes in behavior, sleeping a lot, and poor grooming might be due to normal growing pains. However you will want to keep your eyes open for larger patterns in behavior. Just a few of the below signs may only mean your child is a normal teen, but if you see a cluster of signs or other evidence, you will want to start asking questions.

What to Look For:

  • Dramatic changes in mood or personality.
  • Extreme behavior; for example apathy or excessive energy.
  • Decline in grooming.
  • Changes in dress; for example wearing long sleeve shirts to cover track marks.
  • Drug paraphernalia. Be concerned if you find things like pipes, eye drops, rolling papers, lighters, spoons with burn marks, medicine bottles, or other unusual containers.
  • Chronic health problems:
    -Nasal problems; things like chronic sinus infections, stuffy noses, or nosebleeds might be caused my drugs that are snorted.
    -Coughing up blood or mucus; this can be caused by drugs that are smoked.
    -Tooth decay can be a sign of meth use.
    -Track marks are a sign of injecting.
  • Sudden weight loss or gain.
  • Withdrawal from family and favorite activities.
  • Unusual sleep patterns.
  • Problems in school or a drop in grades.
  • Desire for extreme privacy; for example not telling you where they are going or not allowing you into their room.
  • Asking for a lot of money or stealing from your purse; be suspicious if items or prescription drugs go missing from your home.
  • Dramatic changes in appetite.
  • Odd body movements like tremors, shakiness, staggering, or twisting the jaw back and forth.
  • Change in friends. Be suspicious if your teen never brings his or her friends home to meet you.
  • Watch how your teen is using things like his or her car, credit cards, cell phone, computer, or money.
  • Strange odors in their car or on clothes.
  • Pale skin and dark circles under the eyes.

Although any of these signs on their own might not be a sure sign of substance abuse, they are all behaviors that a parent should monitor closely.

If you think your child is using drugs, a good place to start is by asking others like your spouse or teachers if they have noticed similar behavior. You may also be able to find further evidence by searching your teen’s room. You don’t need to feel guilty about invading your child’s privacy. It is your job to keep your children safe.

You can also ask your teen directly. When talking to teens it is important to let them know that you are asking because you care and want to help, not because you want to get them in trouble. Teens might not always tell the truth about their substance abuse, but you might be able to get a feel of how much they know about the drug culture and how much they have been exposed to drug use.

Most importantly you need to get help for both you and your child. There is no such thing as causal or experimental drug use. If your teen is using drugs you need to act quickly. Ninety percent of addictions start during the teen years. Helping teens prevent or overcome addictions now is the best way to help them be free of addiction in their adult years. And not only is addiction a problem, but substance abuse can seriously impair your judgment and lead to other risky and dangerous behavior.

There are a number of different programs that offer resources, education, and help. Taking some time to study up will help you find the best way to approach the issue and how to help your child. There are a number of good online resources, including:

If you are feeling overwhelmed, calling your pediatrician is a good place to start. We are always here to help.

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Is My Teen Using Drugs or Alcohol?

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