Updated on 1/31/2023

Content Reviewed by Cameron Bolish, M.Ed., CEO of PaRC

As children become teens, parents can often feel overwhelmed and worried about their children experimenting with alcohol or drugs. There are several risk factors that make teens more susceptible to drug experimentation or substance use disorders, including but not limited to: mental health issues, family history of substance use and low academic achievement. Some warning signs of teen drug use can include changes in behavior, possession of drug paraphernalia and isolation. Parents should address their concerns with their teens and may need to consider admitting their child to a treatment program depending on the severity of the substance use problem.

When children reach their teenage years, parents can feel overwhelmed. Middle school and high school can be intimidating as teens become hyper-focused on “fitting in” or finding a group of friends that stick. As a result, teens may get caught in the wrong crowd and experiment with high-risk activities, such as alcohol or drug abuse. While substance use at any age is problematic, it is especially concerning for teens because their brains are still at a crucial stage of development.

Of course, you, as a parent, already know this. You may look back on your own teenage years and wonder if your teen will get into the same trouble you did. To protect your teen, you must work to prevent experimentation before it starts. However, if you have suspicions that your teen is already using drugs, you can educate yourself about specific warning signs that may indicate that your child is truly engaging in problematic substance use.

Risk Factors for Teen Drug Addiction

Several risk factors may make your teen more susceptible to drug experimentation and the development of substance use disorder (SUD). Knowing these risks can help you recognize the importance of getting your teen the help and emotional support they need so they don’t rely on alcohol or other drugs.

Common risk factors include:

  • Family history of substance use
  • Low academic achievement
  • Association with delinquent peers
  • Parental substance use
  • Favorable parental attitudes toward substance use
  • Lack of social connectedness
  • Childhood trauma
  • Unresolved mental health issues

Warning Signs of Teen Drug Use

The teenage years are unquestioningly a challenging time. Behavioral changes, such as mood swings or increased isolation, are normal and common for teens. However, if your teen begins to exhibit several extreme, sudden behavioral changes at once, this may be a sign that your teen is using drugs.

It can be challenging to detect what behavioral changes are abnormal. Similarly, confronting your teen with judgment or punishment and without concrete evidence rarely goes well. If your teen exhibits several of these warning signs, this can indicate whether your teen is experimenting with or using substances:

  • Frequent change of friends
  • Delinquent friends
  • Increased isolation and social withdrawal from family, friends, routines and activities
  • Lack of communication or bonding with family members
  • Violation of family boundaries, such as curfew restrictions
  • Unusual or violent behavior
  • Defensive or defiant reactions when confronted about substance use
  • Impaired sense of judgment
  • Deterioration of academic grades and reduced attendance
  • Lack of motivation
  • Apathy, poor morale, lack of self-control, difficult temperament
  • Manipulative or otherwise irrational behavior
  • Co-occurring mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety
  • Changes in appearance, especially when under the influence of substances
  • Poor eating and sleeping habits
  • Possession of drug paraphernalia, including weight scales, lighters, aluminum foil wrappers, capsules, etc.

It is important to remember that some of these warning signs may be a normal part of a teen’s developmental process. On the other hand, a teen who is using drugs may only exhibit a few obvious signs of drug use. Parents must remember that teens can be mischievous and secretive, so they will try to keep their substance use under wraps.

Substance-Specific Warning Signs

It may also be helpful to know substance-specific warning signs. For example, nicotine has become one of the most popularly used substances by adolescents and teens, primarily in the form of vapes and e-cigarettes. Warning signs that may indicate your teen is vaping include fruity or otherwise unusual smells in their room from vape smoke, breathing issues and empty pods, cartridges or wrappers in their bedroom garbage. Teens may also vape THC, which is the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

Similarly, marijuana use is becoming increasingly popular among teenagers. Some signs your teen may exhibit if they are smoking marijuana include bloodshot eyes, frequent use of eyedrops, smelling like “skunk” or marijuana, slowed movement, slurred speech and increased fatigue.

Confronting Your Teen About Addiction

If you have reason to believe that your child is actively using alcohol or other drugs, it is imperative that you speak to your teen about their behavior. Teens rarely understand the potential consequences that could result from substance use, or they may disregard it. Because of this, it is important to bring these things to their attention. Remember, address your concerns from a place of compassion rather than a place of punishment. Your teen is doing their best to make sense of the world around them, and they need their parent on their side to achieve and sustain recovery.

Depending on the severity of your teen’s substance use problem, you may need to consider admitting them to a treatment program. For treatment to be most effective, your teen must also want to become sober. Your teen may need time to come to terms with their problem. With the help of social support groups and therapy, they can work to create a healthier life.

Prevention and Recovery Center (PaRC) is a treatment facility that understands how challenging it can be for parents to confront their teens about their potential substance use. It can be even more difficult for teen’s not to understand the severity of their problem. Fortunately, we at PaRC offer specialized treatment programs for teens working to recover from substance use and addiction. We offer various therapeutic modalities to ensure that our care is individualized for each patient, even adolescents. For treatment and support, call us today at (713) 939-7272.