What are the Signs of Teen Substance Abuse?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Teen substance abuse can have numerous signs. It’s easy to miss a few indicators that a teen is using drugs or alcohol, or to assume a teen is abusing substances by taking one or two of the signs of this behavior out of context. There can be a lot going on in a teen’s life that causes sudden changes and isn’t indicative of drug abuse. Though a list indicating teen substance abuse is imperfect, it’s still the best method for getting a sense of whether an adolescent might be using drugs or alcohol, and if these are not the cause of such signs appearing, the signs themselves need to be investigated as indicators of other potential problems.

Depression can be a sign of teen substance abuse.
Depression can be a sign of teen substance abuse.

Some of the signs of teen substance abuse include disinterest in former activities or a serious decline in grades. Of course, many teens who successfully participate in numerous activities still use drugs or alcohol. Disinterest could also mean new interests. Sometimes, this lack of interest becomes really pronounced and it may also be associated with cutting ties to dear and long-held friends. A teen might have a few new friends and they may be reluctant to have parents meet them.

Signs of prescription drug abuse can include over-reliance on medication or consistently exceeding recommended dosages.
Signs of prescription drug abuse can include over-reliance on medication or consistently exceeding recommended dosages.

Parents might notice potential signs of teen substance abuse if teens are acting in uncharacteristic ways. If a “good” kid suddenly begins to break curfews and cuts school, or a formerly open kid becomes furtive and secretive and seems to excessively guard their privacy, he or she may be hiding something. Drug and alcohol abuse tend to cause noticeable physical and emotional changes, too. Excessive sleeping, complaining of being ill on school days, depression, anxiety and displays of temper or total lethargy may suggest a child is using a substance. Drug use occasionally leads to extremely pronounced personality changes in teens.

A usually well-behaved kid who suddenly decides to break curfew or miss school could be dealing with substance abuse.
A usually well-behaved kid who suddenly decides to break curfew or miss school could be dealing with substance abuse.

An adolescent may use drugs without exhibiting these symptoms, but occasionally there are signs of a problem around the house. Parents should keep track of any prescription drugs that are drugs of abuse. If they notice their supply diminishing, or if they find that bottles of these drugs are missing, they should be concerned. Another sign of teen substance abuse may occur if money in the house seems to disappear without explanation. Sometimes teens will steal from parents to obtain drugs.

Erratic behavior is often an indicator of someone abusing drugs.
Erratic behavior is often an indicator of someone abusing drugs.

In some circumstances, parents don’t see a concrete sign of teen substance abuse, but they have a strong feeling something is amiss. This may be all the evidence needed to suggest there’s a problem. With any and all of these signs, the goal is for the parent to investigate and take action. Some are in favor of asking teens to take a drug test, but others believe a subtler approach is warranted and that family counseling or at least a visit to the family doctor is the best way to handle the situation. Probably the worst choice is to sit with the unease and do nothing because substance abuse may easily escalate.

Divorce may lead to teen substance abuse.
Divorce may lead to teen substance abuse.
Teens engaging in substance abuse are often withdrawn.
Teens engaging in substance abuse are often withdrawn.
Behavior problems can be a sign of teen substance abuse.
Behavior problems can be a sign of teen substance abuse.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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