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“How can I tell if my teen is using drugs or alcohol?”

Drugs leave physical and behavioral symptoms, just like a cold or chicken pox, and if present, can be indicative of use. Depending on what type of drug or drugs your child may be using, different markers may be present. Let’s look at some of the signs of teen drug use. We’ve broken them down into 3 categories: Physical, Behavioral, and Psychological.

Physical Signs of Substance Abuse

The Eyes

Have you ever really looked into someone’s eyes? Almost every type of substance abuse presents physical changes in the appearance of the eyes- from very enlarged pupils (pupil dilation), to very tiny pupils, called pinning. Also, other common effects seen in the eyes are redness, called “bloodshot” eyes (Conjuctiva), and watery or “glossy” looking eyes. Common with some stimulants like amphetamines (think Ecstasy and MDMA) are blurred vision and rapid eye movements or quivering (called nystagmus). Half closed and droopy eyelids register a “stoned” look that is all too common.

Rapid Changes in Weight

You've been accustomed to the thick and thin of your teen's weight fluctuations since they were born. Weight is put on to supply growing bodies with the nutrients it needs to progress, resulting in thinner bodies after the growth spurt is over. However if you start noticing rapid changes in weight without the added increase in height or muscle mass, it may be time to pay attention.

Certain stimulants like Adderall used for ADHD and the like, if abused can cause weight loss.

Also the use of other substances can cause a dulling of the senses and lack of awareness to hunger and inattention to the needs of the body, thus affecting weight loss.

Changes In Hygiene and Grooming

Some teens don't pay much attention to the details of physical upkeep, especially during times when their bodies are changing considerably. However,  a decrease in attention to appearance can be a clue to the puzzle if your teens habits take a drastic turn. Look for out-of-the-ordinary smells. Pay special attention to their breath and clothing. If they have developed a sudden interest in air fresheners or perfumes, they may be trying to hide the smell of drugs or smoke.

Paraphernalia

This is the most obvious of the signs of drug use in teens. Indisputable are the tools of the trade, and they can range from small cases and tins to unsuspected items like gum wrappers, modified pop cans, cut up straws, or dollars curled up with residue. Snack size bags and zip-lock style plastic bags can hold all types of drugs, from marijuana to prescription pills. Pay attention to kitchen items your child may be taking off to their room and not returning.

You are your child’s parent, not their friend so that means you have every right to look through their room and belongings! Especially if you suspect something like substance abuse is a problem for your teenager.

"You are your child’s parent, not their friend so that means you have every right to look through their room and belongings! Especially if you suspect something like substance abuse is a problem for your teenager."

LifeLine for Youth

Behavioral Signs of Substance Abuse

Decline in School Performance

Big changes in grades and attendance that happen within a short time and have no explanation (family stress, sickness etc.) and are atypical of your child, might mean an intervention could be necessary. Combined with other physical and behavioral markers, poor grades, attendance, downturn of participation in class and sports, or getting into more trouble (fights, arguments) than is normal can be a big red flag for drug use in teens and young adults.

Changes in Social Circles

During the time of discovering one’s autonomy likes, dislikes and interests will change. With this vacillation of interests will come changes in the friends your child hangs around with. This is to be expected. But drastic changes in the number of friends, either increase or decrease should raise some eyebrows. If you see your child wanting to isolate themselves or withdraw from family that may be a sign of substance abuse. When a child spends a lot of time with unnamed friends and acquaintances, or several that you've never heard of or seen before, pay attention, parent! Teens will fall in with those that share their interests and it merits your attentive eye.

"If you see your child wanting to isolate themselves or withdraw from family that may be a sign of substance abuse."

LifeLine for Youth

Missing Money or Prescriptions

News flash – drugs cost money. When you’re a teenager, you don’t have a ton of disposable income lying around. So, if money or valuables or prescriptions seem to go missing in your home, or your child is asking to borrow more than usual this may be a red flag.

Problems with Family

Among all the ups and downs of a child learning to become an independent young adult, one of the most frustrating is the disagreements and fall-outs with parents and those in the family. Heightened and unexplained anger, paranoia, blaming others for problems, and an overly emphasized amount of time alone or out of the house means serious business. Wanting to be alone, isolated, withdrawn, or silent is an indicator that something is wrong.

Psychological Signs of Substance Abuse

Mood Swings

True, mood swings are just part of the changes that come with puberty, but the keyword here is DRAMATIC mood changes. Is your child suddenly irritable for no good reason? Often they will develop a lack of interest in things they previously enjoyed that appears out of the blue.

Everybody reacts differently to drugs, but watch for the two extremes:

  • Suddenly becoming hyperactive or exteremly agitated. Your child seems to have developed an unhealthy sense of paranoia, irrational fears, and anxiety.
  • A sudden loss of motivations and inability to focusRelated to mood swings is a sudden or dramatic change in sleeping habits or appetite.

If you feel like there is an unexplained, abrupt change in attitude or in personality, it may be time to intervene.

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You are not alone!

Raising children is difficult, no one will contest that. Second guessing yourself becomes second nature. Sometimes taking the time to second guess your teens odd behavior could have critical, and perhaps even deadly consequences. When you see questionable behavior out of your already moody teen, it can lead you to wonder “How can I tell if my teen is using drugs or alcohol?

Thankfully, according to a 2016 report teen drug and alcohol use are declining. Sadly though it was reported that still nearly 40% of teens had “been drunk” within the year. When these substance use and drug abuse behaviors touch your household, the effects can be devastating. Knowing where to turn and who to trust for youth care in Utah can be confusing. Lifeline for Youth can help families overcome the crisis of substance abuse, depression, and provide restorative addiction treatment for teens and their families.

Hiding a drug habit involves a lot of subterfuge so we thought you might appreciate a little help with some of the more popular slang that exists:

DRUG SLANG 101:
• Dexing: Abusing cough syrup.
• Triple C: This stands for Coricidin HBP Cough and Cold.
• Special K: Ketamine – a medication used as an anesthetic in humans and animals.
• Crank: The stimulant methamphetamine.
• Antifreeze: Heroin.
• Crunk: This is a verb that means to get high and drunk at the same time.
• Snow: Cocaine.
• X: Ecstasy or 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA).

For a more detailed list of drug slang, download it here: dea-drug-slang-code-words-may2017

So, what do I do now?

Bringing up the topic of alcohol or drug use with your teen as soon as possible is important, but should never be done before you are prepared to do so, while you are angry, or while your child is under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

If you and your child have an open line of communication already, talk with them about the issues they are facing to determine if they need therapy or support. Remember, just because your child is using drugs or alcohol doesn’t automatically mean you are a bad parent or that your child is a bad kid. So, do your best to set your personal feelings to the side while you discuss the issues with your child.

There are many reasons teenagers begin using drugs or alcohol. Some begin using them as a coping mechanism to help deal with unpleasant feelings such as anger, depression, boredom, anxiety, trauma, or confusion. Drugs and alcohol are often used to simply escape the problems they face related to simply growing up. If anyone else in the family uses drugs or alcohol, research shows teenagers are more likely to experiment with them themselves. Family members are role models for children, whether it’s good or bad. Even if family members do not use drugs or alcohol, teenagers are also influenced by their environment and most especially by their peers.

Help for families in trouble

"Bringing up the topic of alcohol or drug use with your teen...should never be done...while you are angry, or while your child is under the influence...."

LifeLine for Youth

Talking with your Teen

Once you are ready to talk with your adolescent, about using drugs or alcohol, don’t be afraid to be yourself. They need to understand that you are the parent and you are trying to look out for their best because you love them. Let them know you are truly concerned while also helping them understand that you want to support them and help them with any issues they may be facing. Never beat around the bush, though, because that may cause confusion and give them a way out of admitting their problems with drugs and/or alcohol.

It is very possible that your teen may react angrily. It is only natural for anyone to put up walls immediately to keep from having discussions that may be hard. Continue talking with your teen though, so they can be assured you are looking out for their best. It is likely you will need to use outside support to help your teen and family deal with the substance abuse. If your child is willing to move forward with help, it is important to have a treatment center ready immediately to get them on the road to recovery.

Check out our article about how to talk with your teen.

Parents, we want you to know that Life Line for Youth is there if know or suspect your teen has drug addiction or behavioral issues and you need help. We're here to lend a hand with supportive youth care to help repair the damage done when families don't know where to turn. Each child deserves a chance, each family deserves a future. Contact us today for more information

Each child deserves a chance! Each family deserves a future. Reach out to us today!

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