Early warning signs of teen substance use

November 11, 2021

As a parent of a teenager, it may be challenging to tell if your child is demonstrating typical adolescent behaviors or mood shifts, or if there are other influences to their behaviors such as alcohol and/or other drugs. There are behavioral and physical signs that your child could be misusing medications, or using drugs or drinking alcohol. Knowing the signs and symptoms of teen drug use can help you better understand if or when you should involve a professional.

Some of these signs include both behavioral and physical factors such as:

  • Avoiding eye contact, ignoring or breaking curfew, frequently asking for money, locking bedroom doors, making secretive calls, withdrawing from classroom participation/slipping in grades, resisting discipline or feedback, missing school or work, or;
  • Poor hygiene/change in appearance, glazed or bloodshot eyes, frequent runny nose or nosebleeds, paranoia, irritability, anxiety, fidgeting, changes in mood or attitude, difficulty staying on task/staying focused, pupils larger or smaller than usual, headaches, and/or rapid weight gain or loss.

It is important to remember that the existence of these signs or symptoms does not solely mean substance use, and to just continue to monitor your teen’s behaviors if you care concerned.

If you suspect that your teen may be using substances, it is important to start the conversation with them early on and set up consistent rules and expectations not only for their behaviors but for communication within the family. According to The Child Mind Institute, “Research shows that kids who have clear rules are less likely to get into serious trouble than kids who don’t. Even when the rules are broken, teens whose parents have clearly outlined what is and isn’t acceptable are less likely to run to extremes and more likely to make safer choices”.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA), provides vital parent resources and information regarding substance use among teenagers with their “Talk. They Hear You” campaign. Their campaign aims to “reduce underage drinking and substance use among youths under the age of 21 by providing parents and caregivers with information and resources they need to address alcohol and other drug use with their children early”. Their website provides a plethora of information and resources to parents and caregivers to include conversation starters and tips, brochures regarding warning signs and treatment options, and a family agreement form to help support your family’s plan to keep youth safe.

If you suspect that your teen may be using substances, the first step may be to contact their primary care physician for a complete physical and possible drug test to confirm what substances they may be using. It is important to seek treatment and support for your teen’s use as early as possible as research indicates the more prevention and early intervention, the better outcomes for those individuals. Many Community Services Boards (CSB) provide various resources such as individual or family counseling, group counseling, substance use education, and access to support groups. Visit https://lockandtalk.org/about/ to find your local CSB for more information on services and to access medication lock boxes that can support securing medications in your home to prevent use and accidental overdose.

For more information on preventing teen substance use in your home, Visit the “Talk. They Hear You” website at https://www.samhsa.gov/talk-they-hear-you to read about early warning signs, ways to talk with your teen, and strategies for seeking support.

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