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Signs of Drug Abuse in Teens  

Drug abuse in teens entails the harmful and uncontrollable usage of substances, resulting in adverse physical, emotional, and social effects. It encompasses the continued intake of drugs despite experiencing negative consequences, presenting substantial hurdles for both the young individual and their surrounding community.

Signs of drug abuse in teens often manifest in various ways. One prominent area of concern is the observable changes in behavior. Adolescents start exhibiting withdrawal from activities they once enjoyed or display secretive behavior, distancing themselves from family and friends. 

Physical changes serve as the most apparent visible cues of potential drug misuse among teenagers. Observable changes like bloodshot eyes, unexplained weight fluctuations, or a deterioration in personal hygiene indicate a teen’s involvement with addictive substances.

Mood swings in teens are another significant indicator of drug abuse. Teenagers experimenting with addictive drugs often experience rapid and pronounced fluctuations in mood, ranging from euphoria to irritability or depression. These mood changes disrupt normal daily functioning and affect interpersonal relationships at school and home.

Furthermore, alterations in personality traits signal potential substance abuse issues in teens. Changes such as increased impulsivity, risk-taking behavior, or sudden shifts in attitude become apparent as teens grapple with the effects of addictive substances on their brain chemistry.

Drug Abuse In Teens

During adolescence, a crucial developmental phase is marked by behaviors like heightened exploration of new experiences, impulsiveness, and a preference for rewarding stimuli. These factors contribute to an elevated susceptibility to substance abuse. According to the most recent National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions, more than 50% of substance use initiation cases occur between the ages 15–19 (Blanco, C, et al. 2018, “Predictors of initiation of nicotine, alcohol, cannabis, and cocaine use: Results of the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC)”)

Changes in Behavior

Sudden changes in behavior and mannerisms are the early indicators of teenage drug use. 

Withdrawal from Family and Friends

When teenagers begin withdrawing from their usual social circles, it can be a red flag for potential drug use. Isolation is often a coping mechanism for teens struggling with substance abuse. They retreat to their room for extended periods, avoiding interaction with family or friends who might question their behavior or activities.

Disinterest in Hobbies or Sports

A sudden lack of interest in hobbies, sports, or other activities that once brought joy is a common sign of teenage drug use. Teens on drugs lose motivation to participate in extracurriculars or spend time with friends.

Increased Secrecy or Lying About Their Whereabouts

Teens engaged in drug use often resort to secrecy or lying to conceal their activities from parents or guardians. They provide vague explanations about where they’ve been or who they’ve been with, avoiding direct questions or deflecting attention away from their behavior.

Stealing Money or Valuables from Home

Financial need is a common motivator for teenage drug users, leading some to resort to stealing money or valuables from their own homes or family members. Parents often notice missing cash, jewelry, or other items of value, especially if their teen exhibits sudden changes in spending habits or becomes evasive when questioned about their finances.

Decline in Academic Performance and Attendance

One of the telltale signs of drug abuse in teenagers is a noticeable decline in academic performance and attendance. Substance use impairs cognitive functioning, memory, and concentration, making it challenging for individuals to focus on their studies and meet academic expectations. As a result, slipping grades, missed assignments, and frequent absences from school often indicate underlying substance-related issues. There are indications that drugs like marijuana, when used during teenage affect cognitive functions in varying ways, with particular emphasis on attention, declarative memory, and cognitive control, as suggested by Randolph K. et al. 2013, “Cannabis and cognitive systems in Adolescents.”

Mood Changes

Teenagers abusing drugs exhibit significant mood swings and changes in temperament. 

Irritability, Aggression, or Verbal Abuse

Drug abuse often leads to heightened irritability, aggression, or verbal abuse in teenagers. Sudden outbursts of anger, agitation over minor issues, or hostile reactions to questioning indicate underlying substance misuse. These mood swings strain relationships with family members, friends, and peers, creating tension and conflict within the household and social circles.

Symptoms of Depression or Apathy

Teenagers struggling with drug abuse display symptoms of depression or apathy. Persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or disinterest in previously enjoyed activities are red flags for underlying substance-related issues. An examination conducted through a cross-sectional study assessed the concurrent use of substances and psychiatric health in adolescents aged 13–15. The findings revealed that consistent usage of cannabis and nicotine together posed an additional risk for psychiatric ailments (Boys A., Farrell M., Taylor C., Marsden J., Goodman R., Brugha T., et al. 2003, “Psychiatric morbidity and substance use in young people aged 13–15 years: results from the Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health”). Particularly, the likelihood of developing depressive disorders escalated significantly, especially when regular alcohol intake was also present.

Constant Threatening Behaviors

In severe cases of drug abuse, teenagers express threats of dropping out of school or running away from home. These behaviors often stem from a sense of desperation, hopelessness, or an attempt to escape the consequences of their substance use.

Destructive Behavior or Vandalism

Teenagers engaged in drug abuse often exhibit destructive behavior or vandalism as a manifestation of their internal turmoil. Acts of vandalism, property damage, or reckless behavior are attempts to express frustration, seek attention, or defy authority figures.

Changes in Personality

Teenagers undergoing substance abuse undergo significant changes in their personality, affecting various aspects of their behavior and social interactions. 

Low Motivation

Substance abuse in teens leads to a sense of apathy and decreased motivation in life. They lose interest in studies, sports, and any activities they once enjoyed, struggle to set and achieve goals and appear disengaged from their surroundings.

Shifts in Attitude and Values

Drug abuse leads to sudden shifts in attitudes and values in teenagers. They may adopt a more rebellious or defiant stance towards authority figures, reject previously held beliefs or values, and prioritize obtaining and using drugs above other responsibilities or commitments.

Poor Self-Control

Substance abuse impairs a teenager’s ability to exercise self-control and make rational decisions. They struggle to regulate their emotions, impulses, and behaviors, leading to a lack of restraint in social situations and conflicts with family members or peers.

Physical Changes

Substance abuse also manifests in various physical symptoms and alterations in appearance. 

Bloodshot Eyes or Dilated Pupils

One of the most noticeable physical signs of substance abuse is the appearance of bloodshot eyes or dilated pupils. Drugs like marijuana cause redness in the eyes, while stimulants like cocaine or amphetamines lead to dilated pupils.

Rapid Weight Loss or Gain

Weight changes, whether rapid loss or gain, are indicative of substance abuse. Some drugs suppress appetite, leading to significant weight loss over a short period. Conversely, others increase appetite or cause cravings, resulting in rapid weight gain. 

Neglect of Personal Hygiene

Teenagers struggling with substance abuse often neglect their hygiene, leading to noticeable changes in appearance and cleanliness. They appear chaotic, with unkempt hair, dirty clothes, and a lack of grooming. 

Unexplained Injuries or Bruises

The presence of unexplained injuries or bruises on a teenager’s body is also a cause for concern and indicates potential substance abuse. Drugs and alcohol often impair coordination, balance, and judgment, increasing the risk of accidents and injuries. 

Tremors, Shakes, or Drowsiness

Physical symptoms such as tremors, shakes, or drowsiness are telltale signs of drug intoxication or withdrawal. These symptoms vary depending on the substance used, including involuntary movements, muscle weakness, or excessive sleepiness.

How to Know if Your Teen is Using Drugs

Identifying potential drug use in teenagers requires a combination of observation, communication, and vigilance. Here are some strategies parents can use to determine if their teen is using drugs:

Utilize Your Senses

Pay attention to your teen’s appearance, behavior, and surroundings. Use your sense of smell to detect unusual odors on their breath or clothing, which could indicate alcohol or marijuana use.

Observe Their Eyes

Check your teen’s eyes for signs of drug use, such as dilated or constricted pupils. Red, bloodshot eyes indicate marijuana use, while unusually dilated or pinpoint pupils often suggest the use of stimulants or opioids.

Monitor Mood Swings

Be attentive to changes in your teen’s mood and behavior. Mood swings, irritability, agitation, or unusual euphoria are signs of substance abuse in most cases.

Watch for Deceptive Behavior

Be wary of your teen’s secretive or evasive behavior regarding their whereabouts, activities, or social circle. Sudden changes in plans, reluctance to discuss their day, or unexplained absences may indicate drug involvement.

Check Teens Belongings for Drug-Related Paraphernalia

Keep an eye on the belongings of your teen for drug-related paraphernalia. You should remain vigilant for items such as smoking pipes, bongs, butane torches, hypodermic needles or vials, weight scales or small bowls, balloons or wrappers, and hidden stashes of drugs or alcohol. Possession of such paraphernalia suggests involvement in drug use, and parents should thoroughly check their teen’s belongings and living spaces for these items. 

What to Do if You Find Out Your Teen is Using Drugs?

Discovering that your teen is using drugs can be distressing, but it’s crucial to respond with care, understanding, and appropriate support. Here are steps to take if you suspect or confirm your teen’s drug use:

  • Stay Calm and Approach with Compassion
  • Initiate Honest Conversations
  • Seek Professional Guidance
  • Establish Clear Boundaries and Consequences
  • Explore Treatment Options
  • Encourage Healthy Coping Mechanisms
  • Involve Family and Support Networks
  • Monitor Progress and Provide Continued Support

By taking proactive steps and offering unwavering support, you can help your teen overcome substance abuse and move towards a healthier, brighter future.

Can occasional mood swings or changes in behavior be mistaken for drug abuse?

Yes, mood swings and changes in behavior can sometimes be attributed to typical teenage development or other factors. It’s essential to consider a range of factors before jumping to conclusions about drug abuse, including environmental stressors, hormonal changes, and mental health issues.

Are there specific interventions or programs available for teenagers struggling with substance abuse?

Yes, various interventions and programs cater specifically to teenagers dealing with substance abuse issues. These may include outpatient counseling, group therapy sessions, family therapy, and specialized treatment programs designed to address the unique needs of adolescents.

How can parents approach conversations about drug abuse with their teenagers?

Parents can initiate open and honest discussions about drug abuse by creating a supportive and non-judgmental environment. It’s crucial to listen actively, express concern, and provide factual information about the risks associated with substance abuse. Additionally, setting clear expectations and boundaries regarding drug use can help guide these conversations.

What role do peers play in influencing teenage drug abuse?

Peers can significantly influence teenage drug abuse through peer pressure, social norms, and the desire for acceptance or belonging. Parents and caregivers should encourage healthy peer relationships, guide how to resist negative influences and make informed decisions about substance use.

Are there early warning signs of potential substance abuse that parents might overlook?

Yes, some early warning signs of substance abuse may be subtle and easily overlooked by parents. These can include changes in sleep patterns, appetite changes, sudden changes in friend groups, increased secrecy, and unexplained financial difficulties. Parents need to stay vigilant and address any concerns promptly.

Adam Siegel
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Adam is the lead addiction therapist at Olympic Behavioral Health and has been in the field of addiction treatment since 2009. Adam earned his associate degree in Applied Science for Chemical Dependency Counseling from Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, NY, in 2009 and became a Certified Addiction Counselor in 2016. He is currently enrolled in the Bachelor of Social Work Program at Florida Atlantic University to obtain his MSW. Adam is also in long term sobriety which allows him to relate with patients on a deeper level.

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