10 Silent Signs Your Teen May Be Abusing Drugs
It is the rare teen who comes right out and admits to a drug problem, so it's up to parents to watch for these more subtle clues.
Know the signs
Sure, there’s plenty of drama with teens whether they’re taking drugs or not. But the key to identifying drug use is to look for abrupt or conspicuous changes in your teen’s behavior. Listen to your instincts. If something worries you, talk about it with your spouse or partner, a trusted teacher or coach, or anyone who cares for your child. Two heads are always better than one, and sharing your worries will make you more confident and able to make an effective plan for helping your teen. Although drug use has plateaued among teenagers overall, 46 percent of high school seniors have been drunk, 44 percent have smoked marijuana or hashish, and 8 percent have tried narcotics. Of course, if it’s your teen who has a problem, the rate in your house is 100 percent, so depending on what you see, you may need to act very quickly to prevent a tragedy. Here are secrets that substance abuse counselors wish you knew.
Your teen seems more drowsy or excited than usual
Emotional ups and downs are part of life, for teenagers more than most people. However, behaviors like falling asleep at the dinner table or habitually taking long naps after school are not the result of sleepiness from staying up late. Conversely, if your teenager can’t relax after a long day, or is jittery for no apparent reason, you might suspect drug use. Here’s where you can take action. Whether it’s excessive fatigue, agitation, or both, you can use such conditions as your reason to get your teenager to a clinician. This one phone call changed an addict’s life—and her story will change yours.
Your teen becomes irritable and stops talking to you
Of course, touchiness and radio silence are common from teenagers, but if your kid cuts off all communication with you, you may have more than an average problem on your hands. For the snarly, non-communicative teenager, the best approach is a consistent, calm presence, which allows him to vent, but also leaves the door open to communication. Whether or not drugs are involved, you can’t let yourself be verbally or physically abused—but at the same time, you also don’t want to lash out and cut off all dialogue. You might say something like, “I know you don’t want to talk much with me now, but know that I am always here for you, and I can get you any help you may need.” Here’s what your teen (who won’t talk to you) really wishes you knew.
Your teen changes friends
Peers exert enormous influence on teenagers’ behavior, so the set of friends he chooses is extremely important. You and your family also affect your teen’s behavior, whether he admits it or not. If your kid selects a group of friends who are drug or alcohol users, tread lightly, but do not hesitate to make the point that some of them are bad influences. If you are truly worried, forbid your teenager from spending time with those individuals, but be prepared for complaints and attempts to evade your supervision. Simply put, if your child is hanging around with drug users, he is likely at risk to use (or may already be using) drugs himself. Consider getting your teenager professional help as a preventative measure.
Your teen spends more money than usual
Money going to expenses you do not understand should be an immediate red flag. Whether you are providing an allowance or your teenager has a job, any unexplained expenses should provoke questions: How much are you spending on weekends? Who did you go to the movies with? If you notice large amounts of cash flowing through your teenager’s hands, suspect that drug use, or at least something unusual, may be happening. Now is the time to demand answers before you allow your child to continue with a job, go out on weekends, or have friends over. Discover these apps for keeping your kids safe.
Your teen’s schoolwork takes a sharp downturn
If your teenager’s grades tank, or she suddenly has behavior problems, suspect drug use as a possible culprit. Work with the counselor who calls you, and make sure that everyone at the school who notices a problem has their say in the report to you. Take advantage of the entire network of teachers, administrators, coaches, and aides, who should be working together for your teenager. School personnel often have the best contacts for getting help for your teenager, and can make mandatory referrals, taking at least some of the burden off your shoulders. Here’s how to combat other bad habits your child might pick up in school.
Your teen’s eating habits change
If your teenager suddenly loses interest in eating, loses or gains a lot of weight quickly, drugs are one of the causes you should consider. (It could also be an eating disorder—these are the signs of eating disorders in children.) The use of stimulants like cocaine or amphetamine cause weight loss. Some teenagers even use these drugs for the purpose of losing weight. If you teenager has become so lethargic and withdrawn that he gains weight, use that as a reason to get him to the pediatrician—and let that clinician know about your concerns immediately. Pediatricians often have great referral networks for addiction, and can motivate your teenager for a treatment in ways you cannot. Don’t forget to also have a conversation with your teen about alcohol.
Your teen loses interest in previously cherished activities
Although your teenager should be allowed to experiment with new activities and goals, any sudden change in interest, or absence of any interest at all, should signal a possible drug problem. Marijuana, in larger amounts, is notorious for causing tiredness, apathy, and a general lack of motivation to do anything. When mere changes in interests become a lack of any interests, or a failure to stick with homework, sports, clubs, or band activities, you should take action. Although marijuana and similar drugs usually do not cause overdose deaths, they will slow a teenager down and prevent him from living up to his academic potential and learning the important social skills an adult must have. Apathy is also a potential sign of childhood depression.
Your teen’s physical health deteriorates
Don’t be fooled by your teenager’s excuses: If he has bloodshot eyes, dilated pupils, or scabs on his body, consider drug use. Frequent bloody or runny noses, or any sorts of lesions around the mouth, lips, or on the hands, can be signs of cocaine or smokeable methamphetamine use. Covering relevant parts of the body—such as the arms—can mean that your teenager is trying to avoid detection. (Note that many teens are getting high on prescription drugs found in their own homes.) As with the other easily observable signs of drugs use, simply state your observation, and then require your teenager to be examined by a pediatrician or other doctor who has been forewarned about your concerns. Rely on that professional to help with a referral, and the motivation to attend that referral.
Your teen has drugs or drug paraphernalia
Addiction festers in secret, so if your teenager has unknown pills, pipes, syringes, or substances in baggies, find out more. If you are concerned, do not hesitate to pry into your teenager’s room or belongings, or talk to his friends or teachers. This is tough advice to give, as most of us would like to respect the privacy of our children as they grow into adulthood. But in the presence of a drug problem, allowing your teenager to set up boundaries and hidden places in his life could result in disaster.
Your teen tells you he is using drugs
It might seem implausible, but often teenagers will come out and tell their parents, in so many words, that they are stuck with a drug problem. If your teenager follows up her confession by asking you to get her an appointment, your work is easy. However, you may need to connect your teenager’s distress with the possibility of getting help. You may hear some of the obvious markers of a drug problem, like “I can stop any time I want,” “I was just holding the cocaine for Becky,” or “I drive better when I’m high.” Don’t be shocked at your teenager’s naiveté. Be glad that you have your sights on the problem, and get a move on finding help for your teenager.
Laurence M. Westreich, MD, is an addiction psychiatrist, clinical associate professor of Psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine, and the author of A Parent’s Guide to Teen Addiction (Skyhorse Publishing) and Helping the Addict You Love.