If there’s a nagging feeling in the pit of your stomach, a feeling that something’s just not right with your teenage son or daughter, you’re smart to pay attention and try to learn what might be going on. It’s a confusing time because adolescents go through so many changes and when their behavior veers from normal, how do you know if it’s just teenage ‘stuff’ or something more serious like drugs or alcohol?
You’re not alone in this challenging time - many parents are asking questions like, “is he high or just tired?” or “I think I smelled pot but maybe it was her friend.” Part of you wants to bury your head in work and other family obligations and write it off as a passing phase, but in your gut you know it might be serious and even though you’re scared to know the truth, you want to help your teen if they’re in trouble.
There are some pretty clear signs of drug use in teens that parents can look for, and while this is a scary time, your diligence can help save your child, and you, a lot of future pain and suffering if you intervene early.
Here are some signs of drug use you can look for in your teen’s environment and behavior. 1, 2
Changes in physical appearance or health
Look for things like unusual smells on your teen’s clothes or breath, unexplained weight loss, black smudges on their fingers or lips, and a generally more messy appearance. You may notice poor overall hygiene (less showering and teeth-brushing,) lethargy, slurred speech, and constant sniffing or runny nose. It’s common that they’ll get sick and then appear to feel better frequently, and have bruising or marks on their arms (they may start wearing long-sleeved shirts to hide track marks.) You might notice they have bloodshot eyes, widely dilated pupils, or pin-point pupils - this depends on the substance they’re using.
Change in friend groups
You may be noticing your teen hanging out with kids you don’t know, who they haven’t ever been friends with in the past, and who they don’t introduce or bring to the house. They may be older and are often over the age of 18. Your teen may start ignoring set curfews and boundaries, which happens as a normal part of adolescence, but a teen involved in drug use will often make elaborate excuses or invent stories about their whereabouts and the people they’re with. They’ll often get inappropriately angry over your questions about these friends or where they’re going.
Changes in day to day behavior
A teen who’s more-than-experimenting with drugs or alcohol will often show a loss of interest in things they used to like doing; sports, art, music or drama activities will stop, or they may make up elaborate lies about why they’re not doing these things anymore. A general lack of motivation is a key symptom of drug use, especially marijuana and alcohol.
They may have chunks of unexplained time away from home and school and will be argumentative and angry about being asked where they’ve been. They often spend large amounts of time alone in their room and stop their previously normal communication with you and with siblings. A common feeling by parents is, “I don’t know my kid anymore,” which is different from normal adolescent distancing.
School may become a battle, with your teen skipping classes (or days) and making up excuses about why and where they went. Their grades may change drastically, although some teens are able to mask this due to their high intelligence so paying attention to any communication from the school and teachers is important.
Teens often become highly secretive about their phone - spending an unusual amount of time texting or on social media, not wanting you to see or hold their phone, and might create accounts under profiles you won’t recognize. You may also see them nod -off at times, even when doing something around the house like eating or playing video games. While this virtual world of secrets may be normal with the pandemic for parenting, parents do have the right to be suspicious and ask for cooperation.
Your teen may also get more aggressive or have a violent reaction to fairly routine requests or comments, and they might become uncharacteristically defiant. Their reactions may seem totally unprovoked but may hide their sense of vulnerability, or their emotional reserves may be drained by poor sleep, since there is an emotional instability associated with withdrawal symptoms.
You might also notice they have either unexplained money or possessions they wouldn’t normally have been able to purchase or the opposite, that they have no money even though they receive an allowance or have income from working. These could be signs of drug dealing and purchasing.
The most definitive sign that your teen is using illicit substances is finding paraphernalia in their room, car or backpack (which they’ll carry everywhere but not want you going near.) Things like the actual substance, or tin foil, weight scales, smoking pipes, butane torches, bongs, ziplock bags, square folded paper envelopes, cigarette lighters, small porcelain bowls, hypodermic needles, balloons, aluminum foil wrappers, mirrors or flat metal, short straws, glass pipes, capsules, and vials are clear signs of drug use that warrant immediate intervention.
Looking into suspected drug or alcohol use in your teen is a dreaded part of parenting but doing it early and taking steps with what you find is critical. One tremendous advantage kids discover is that so many parents are ashamed of what this implies of their parenting; almost every parent in treatment wishes they’d asked for help earlier. Stepping in can help your child safely navigate their changing world and prevent a potentially tragic and life-altering event like serious legal consequences or an overdose.
About the Author
Brenda Zane is a Mayo Clinic Certified health and wellness coach whose work supports moms of kids with substance use disorder. Her mission is to help moms maintain their health and sanity as they navigate the frightening and exhausting experience of having a child in addiction. Her podcast, Hopestream and private, online community, The Stream, provide connection and hope plus resources related to holistic health, addiction and treatment options. Brenda also writes for various publications and is available to speak on topics such as parenting kids in addiction, purpose and transformation, self-care and coping strategies, and the impact of the opioid crisis. You can download her free ebook called HINDSIGHT: 3 Things I Wish I Knew When My Son Was Addicted to Drugs