Teen Drug Abuse: The Warning Signs

teenager with drugs
There are many signs you can look for if you think your teenager is abusing drugs.

It is never easy to find out your teen is using drugs. Communication is a powerful tool for reducing and preventing teen drug abuse. Talking to your teens about drug use can help them make the decision not to use in the first place or to stop using if they already are. It is important that as a parent, you remain aware of the warning signs of drug use so you can give your children the help they need in a timely manner.

If you are concerned that your teen might be using drugs, here are some common warning signs to look for.

Changes in Behavior

Behavioral change is usually one of the first visible signs of drug use. Some behavioral changes that may indicate your teen is using drugs include:

  • Poor academic performance.
  • Missing school and/or extracurricular activities.
  • Getting into conflicts or trouble at school.
  • Becoming defiant, uncooperative, or hostile (e.g., violating curfew, ignoring rules, lashing out).
  • Increased illegal activity or behavior.
  • Decreased interest in activities and hobbies.
  • Changing friends or social circles.
  • Isolating themselves from friends or family.
  • Acting secretive.
  • Newfound demand for privacy.
  • Lack of respect for authority.
  • Avoiding eye contact.
  • Complaints from teachers, classmates, etc.
  • Unexplained disappearances for significant periods of time.

Psychological Changes

Because many abused drugs are psychotropic, personality or mood changes are also common signs of drug use. These include:

  • Frequent mood swings or emotional instability.
  • Extreme highs and lows.
  • Manipulative or deceitful behavior.
  • Decreased motivation.
  • Lethargy or low energy.
  • Memory problems.
  • Poor concentration.
  • Slurred or rapid-fire speech.
  • Laughing for no apparent reason.
  • Being unusually loud and obnoxious.
  • Being fearful or paranoid for no apparent reason.
  • Periods of drowsiness followed by periods of high energy.
  • Other unexplained changes in attitude or personality.

Health Problems

There are many health issues that occur as a result of drug use such as:

  • Appetite changes.
  • Sleep disturbances.
  • Excessive thirst (known as cottonmouth and typically occurs as a result of marijuana use).
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Sweating.
  • Headaches.
  • Frequent illness.
  • Sudden weight loss or gain.
  • Coordination problems.
  • Nosebleeds (may occur due to the snorting of drugs such as cocaine).
  • Constipation.
  • Seizures (without a history of epilepsy or other seizure disorder).
  • Runny nose.
  • Shakes or tremors.
  • Accidents or injuries.

Personal Appearance

People who use drugs often begin to neglect their personal appearance as a result of drug use. If your teen is in fact abusing drugs, you may notice some of these signs:

  • Poor hygiene.
  • Poor coordination.
  • Teeth clenching.
  • Bloodshot eyes.
  • Bruises, cuts, and sores (from falling, bumping into things, or scratching oneself).
  • Constant scratching (a common sign of opiate use).
  • Track marks on arms or legs from intravenous drug use.
  • Wearing long sleeves even in the summer (to cover up track marks).
  • Burns on fingers or lips (from joints).
  • Pinpoint pupils (a common sign of opiate use).
  • Smelling like drugs, alcohol, or other unusual odor.

Other Signs to Look For

There are several other visible signs of drug use that you should look for if you’re worried about your teenager using drugs. These include:

  • Finding drug paraphernalia (e.g., pipes, rolling papers, needles, bottles, unusual containers, eye drops, butane lighters, smoking devices, cut up straws, mirrors, Ziploc bags, tin foil, weighing scales, balloons, aluminum foil wrappers, vials, capsules, etc.).
  • Finding drug residue or remains (e.g., seeds, stems, powder, etc.).
  • Smelling strong incense or perfumes within your teenager’s personal space (commonly used to hide the smell of drugs).
  • Missing medications, alcohol, cigarettes, etc.
  • Missing cash or other resources (i.e., valuable items which may be pawned for drugs).
  • Finding hidden stashes of drugs or alcohol.

Of course, not all of the signs listed above will point directly to drug abuse. Some signs on their own may be indicators of other, unrelated problems. However, the more signs that are present, the more likely your teen is using drugs.

Sources

National Council for Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. NCADD. (April 26, 2015). For Parents: What to Look For.

Shahid, A., Mouton, C.P., et. al. (December 2011). Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience, 8(12): 24-28. Early Detection of Illicit Drug Use in Teenagers.

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