According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, 8.33% of 12- to 17-year-olds nationwide report using drugs in the last month, and 50% of teenagers have misused a drug at least once. As a parent or caregiver, it can be hard to spot early signs of substance abuse in your teens. Many of the first red flags can seem like normal teen behavior.
If you think your teen is in crisis, call 911. You can also find treatment facilities in your area or get more information from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. But the first step is recognizing that there is a problem. Here are some of the first signs of substance abuse to look for in your teen.
Parents of teenagers might look at the list below and laugh. Isn’t moodiness just part of being a teenager? And while it’s true that many of these behavioral indicators of substance abuse can be common in teens who aren’t using drugs and alcohol, it’s important to pay attention to changes. Be aware if you see several of these new behaviors in your teen or a sudden or extreme change.
Yes, teenagers are well known for being moody. But strong tempers, defensiveness or grumpiness, along with other physical or behavioral symptoms, could also point to substance abuse. This is one of those times when it’s important to look for sudden or extreme changes that take place with other symptoms.
Listen for slurred speech, check in if you see them struggling to concentrate, watch for poor coordination, and take note of memory lapses. These kinds of mental changes in your teen might be associated with one-time or repeated use of drugs or alcohol. Sure, you might think it would be obvious if they seemed drunk. But you might also see these effects of the drugs or alcohol accumulate over time, even if you never see your teen drunk or high.
If they’re not interested in the same hobbies, extracurriculars or classes that they used to get excited about, or they just can’t be bothered with anything, it’s important to take notice. You could also see them withdrawing, whether from family or friends. And hanging out with a new group of friends that they’re reluctant to introduce to you might also be a sign.
Sometimes the signs you’re looking for will be easier to pick up on than changes in their behavior. Physical signs might be finding empty liquor bottles under their bed, or they could be physical changes you observe in your teen’s body.
This one might seem obvious, but finding drugs or alcohol in their room, backpack, or pockets could point to substance abuse in your teen. If you do find something like that, it can be tricky to bring up the topic calmly with your teen. But if you can be an active listener in the conversation, they’re more likely to respond in a way that can let you help them find their way out of a bad situation.
You can tell a lot about your teen by their eyes. Look for red or bloodshot eyes, small pupils that don’t get bigger in dim light (pinpoint pupils) or big (dilated) pupils. Some drugs might make eyelids heavy or cause eyes to move slower or faster, according to American Addiction Centers.
Abuse of drugs and alcohol can cause long-lasting health impacts. There can be a lot of causes of fatigue and repeated illness that have nothing to do with drug or alcohol abuse, but noticing that your teen gets sick a lot or never has any energy can be a red flag. And either way, it’s worth investigating.
If you’re worried that your teen struggles with substance abuse, seek help. Their primary care provider, behavioral health staff members, teachers, and counselors can offer support to both you and your teen as you navigate this difficult situation. Make an appointment with their provider to get access to more resources so you can help them through.