Teens Using Drugs: What to Know and What to Do


All teens are at risk for substance abuse and experimenting with drugs or alcohol because these substances are readily available. However, it is a myth that addiction, especially alcoholism, is an “equal opportunity illness.” Research overwhelmingly demonstrates that a family history alcoholism or alcohol problems (where alcoholism may possibly not have been diagnosed) places a teenager at higher risk for addiction due to the possible existence of genetic predisposition. Only complete avoidance of psychoactive substances can ensure the prevention of substance use disorders. Barring this precaution, the next best thing is education, awareness, and early intervention for drug and alcohol related problems.

The word “drugs” strikes fear in the heart of every parent. It’s not a new problem, but when it’s your own kid at risk, it’s as urgent as any challenge parents face. How can we tell when our kids are using? And what is the best and proper response? It’s not as hard as you may think it is.

Forms of Use and Abuse

There are four primary categories of substance abuse among teens: the “accepted” use of tobacco and alcohol; the age-old menace of marijuana; prescription painkillers, which is emerging as a real threat to teens; and the “hard drugs”, including cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin. Every category leaves both physical and behavioral trails that should trigger an immediate parental response:

Tobacco and Alcohol: The primary challenge here is that your teen may be using these substances because you do. In fact, you may actually be giving the impression of approval, either directly or by implication, by doing nothing about it. It’s easy to tell if your kid is smoking – just smell his or her clothes, look for signs (matches, lighters, etc.), and take a close look at your child’s friends. Alcohol may also have symptoms that are similar to other drug use, not the least of which are questionable social activities and behavioral changes that negatively affect school performance.

Marijuana: Nearly one out of three 12th graders has tried pot, and regular  use is hard to hide. The signs are similar to tobacco use – look for evidence such as rolling paper and matches, and also pay close attention to behavior changes, moods, and acquaintances who could be drug users (see below).

Prescription painkillers: According to USA Today, nearly one out of five teens has used prescription pain-killers to get high. If you have them around the house, pay close attention to how quickly they disappear. The best detection is a noticeable change in behavior (see below).

Other Drugs: The use of methamphetamines, cocaine, and heroin is a very serious issue. Behavior changes here are easy to spot, and parents should not hesitate to intervene. Denial or thinking it couldn’t possibly be an issue for your child are classic mistakes parents make.

Behavioral Signs of Abuse

Apart from physical evidence (papers, pipes, ashtrays, vials, plastic baggies, clips, etc.), the most effective way for parents to detect drug use is to watch for behavioral changes and mood swings. Note that a child does not need to exhibit every sign. You know your child best – are the signs you are observing typical for your child, or have these signs developed recently?

At home: look for loss of interest in family activities, disrespect, abusive behavior and attitude, loss of appetite, money mismanagement, excuses and dishonesty, and spending a lot of time alone.

At school: look for a sudden drop in grades, loss of interest, defiance of authority, shift in interests, problems with teachers, and not doing homework.

Physical and emotional clues: new friends, odd smells, mood swings, negative behavior, weight changes, money issues, rebelliousness, extreme anger.

Parental Response

The worst thing a parent can do is sit back and wait it out. Intervention at the first sign of substance abuse is critical, as the earlier you get involved, the greater the chances of turning things around. Open a dialogue with your teen, as well as their teachers and friends. Use your intuition and common sense, because if you look closely enough, you’ll see the signs.  And when you do, don’t hesitate. Your child’s life hangs in the balance, and there is no greater parental calling than protecting it.