Teen Drug Abuse Symptoms and Warning Signs

The teen years are an experimental time for most people, and unfortunately drugs are one of the most appealing attractions for some teenagers. The consequences of playing with dangerous substances can lead to abuse and addiction. Some of the most commonly abused drugs amongst teenagers include cough medicine, tranquilisers, sedatives, amphetamines and marijuana.

If you suspect your teen might be using drugs, you can address and solve the problem with the right help. Even if you don’t have any reason to suspect your child is involved with drugs, it’s prudent to be aware of the symptoms and warning signs.

Recognising the Common Warning Signs of Teen Drug Abuse

Your gut instinct could be correct if you begin to suspect your child of involvement with drugs, but how can you know for sure?

  • Look out for secretive or deceitful behaviour: if your teen seems to be acting sheepishly or blatantly lying, this could denote a problem – especially if it becomes frequent. They might come in late and intoxicated, having been to a party. They could even claim that parents or supervising adults would be at a party, but don’t give you a number to call; or fail to provide clear details about where they’re off to. These are all signs that you should investigate.
  • Pay attention to their eyes: if they’ve been drinking, your teen might have difficulty focusing and the pupils will be dilated. In the case of marijuana usage, pupils will be constricted and the eyes will be red and heavy-lidded.
  • Try to detect certain odours: when your teen has been out with friends, get close to them to see if you can catch any smells indicative of smoking or drinking – either on their clothing, breath or hair.
  • Look closely at their car and driving habits: check their car for drug paraphernalia or bottles and to see if it smells like alcohol or smoke. Are there any dents? Do they drive recklessly after having been out with friends?
  • Look out for mood changes: after being out with friends, watch to see if they look queasy, slack-eyed, unusually tired, or sullen. Are they tripping over their own feet, stumbling, laughing hysterically for no reason, obnoxious or loud?

The Dangers of Teen Drug Abuse

Drug abuse is dangerous regardless of a person’s age. However, the dangers are somewhat enhanced for teenagers. Taking the substance abuse route so early can make a teen more likely to have problems with addiction when they’re older. It can also cause irreversible brain damage. Other dangers include:

  • Behavioural issues: drug abuse increases a teen’s chances of being engaged in violence, as well as experiencing suicidal thoughts, depression and other social problems.
  • Learning difficulties: drug abuse can cause memory and learning problems in later life.
  • Emotional issues: drug abuse can mask, worsen or cause emotional problems such as schizophrenia, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, mood swings and depression.
  • Dependence and addiction: abusing drugs as a teen increases one’s chances of addiction and relapse in later life.
  • Car accidents: abusing drugs increases a teen’s exposure to the danger of being in a car crash.
  • Diseases: abusing drugs increases the risk of diseases like Hepatitis B and C, HIV and AIDS – especially if needles are used.
  • Risky sexual behaviour: issues like sexual assault, teen pregnancy and STDs can arise due to increased sexual activity and risky sexual behaviour, which are more likely to happen if a teen uses drugs.
  • Overdose: abusing drugs (especially painkillers) can lead to an overdose, which could prove fatal.

Teen Drug Experimentation (Why Teens Abuse Drugs)

Some of the factors that predispose teens to drug use include the amount of stress they have to deal with every day, the nature of their environment and genetics. In many cases, using drugs is a matter of trying to fit in with peers, trying to experiment, or simply wanting to feel good. Experimenting with drugs does not necessarily mean that your teen will become an addict. They might just want to try drugs out of curiosity.

In other cases, a teen might use drugs in an attempt to self-medicate if they’re in denial about a problem they want to forget or if they have a physiological condition they’re not aware of. Some teens even take drugs to improve their performance in school.

Regardless of the reason(s) your teen might be taking drugs, it’s important to help without blaming them or being judgemental. Instead, focus on getting them the professional help that they need.

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Recognising Teen Drug Abuse or Addiction

It can be a real challenge to discover whether your child is using alcohol or drugs, considering that many signs and symptoms of abuse are not considered unusual behaviour for teens. If you’ve ever noticed any of the below symptoms, don’t allow yourself to take a rash approach by confronting your child angrily. It would be better to take your time to consider the signs you’ve noticed and perhaps, search their room for evidence first.

While you might want to run straight to their room to search, you need to tread with caution as well. Whether you decide to tell them before you do it or not, you should be prepared to explain why such a search is necessary. Let them know that you’re doing it because you’re concerned for their health and safety.

So, what are the signs and symptoms that can help you recognise abuse or addiction?

Physical symptoms

  • Injuries or accidents
  • Burns or soot on lips or fingers
  • Depression
  • Frequent sickness
  • Headaches
  • Lethargic movement
  • Dishevelled appearance
  • Nosebleeds
  • Poor hygiene
  • Red/flushed face or cheeks
  • Runny nose
  • Seizures
  • Skin abrasions or bruises
  • Unusual smells on clothes, breath or hair
  • Sores or spots around the mouth
  • Sudden or dramatic weight gain or loss
  • Sweatiness
  • Track marks on legs or arms
  • Wearing long sleeves, even in warm weather
  • Rapid-fire speech or slurred speech
  • Unusually tired
  • Vomiting
  • Excessive thirst or wetting lips

Psychological symptoms

  • Being fearful or paranoid without just cause
  • Being unusually obnoxious and loud
  • Reduced motivation
  • Frequent mood swings
  • Extreme highs and lows
  • Laughing without cause
  • Low energy
  • Manipulative or deceitful behaviour
  • Memory problems
  • Periods of drowsiness followed by periods of high energy
  • Poor concentration

Behavioural symptoms

  • Always going out at night
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Becoming hostile, defiant or uncooperative
  • Breaking curfews often
  • Disappearing for long periods of time
  • Not acting the same way with family members
  • Driving recklessly
  • Getting into trouble at school
  • Having a sudden appetite
  • Having a change in friends
  • Increase in illegal behaviour
  • Unusually clumsy (stumbling)
  • Isolating themselves
  • Locking doors
  • Making endless excuses
  • Making secretive phone calls
  • Missing school and/or extracurricular activities
  • Newfound demand for privacy
  • Poor academic performance
  • Reduced interest in activities and hobbies
  • Seeming to spend more money than usual
  • Using mints or chewing gum to cover up breath
  • Using over-the-counter solutions to manage nasal irritation or eye reddening

Possible Hiding Places for Drugs

In addition to the signs and symptoms your teen may exhibit, you should look out for hiding places where they might be keeping drug paraphernalia, drugs or alcohol. This would be particularly useful for when you search their room.

  • Between or beneath clothes in dresser drawers
  • Desk drawers
  • Duffle bags or backpacks
  • DVD, Tape, CD, or video cases
  • In a plant
  • In between books on a bookshelf
  • Inside books
  • Inside empty sweet bags
  • Inside unsuspicious medicine containers
  • Makeup cases, tubes and tubs
  • Small boxes such as pencil cases or jewellery cases
  • Under a loose plank in the floor boards
  • Under the bed

Whether you find evidence or not, be sure to check your teen’s digital devices – especially their phone. Check their frequent contacts to see if they are people you know. Also, look at their social media posts to see if they contradict information they gave you that might hint at possible drug use. If you do find evidence or reason to be suspicious, you need to prepare to talk to them and ask questions, despite any protests about invading their privacy.

Common Drugs that Teens Abuse

The drugs most commonly abused by teens are not likely to be too different from those abused by adults, but the reasons for taking them are likely to be different. For teens, it may be a matter of what’s accessible and they may be more likely to binge due to their perception of danger. The substances most abused by teenagers include:

  • Alcohol: it shouldn’t be surprising that alcohol is a popular choice, due to the level of social acceptance from people who are old enough to drink.
  • Marijuana: many teens don’t think there are any significant risks to smoking marijuana.
  • Prescription drugs: benzodiazepines and painkillers are known to have intoxicating effects and are often easily accessible from medicine cabinets at home.

Intervention for a Teen Drug Addiction

No parent wants do have to deal with a child abusing substances, but you’ll need to take charge of the situation if the problem does arise. The ideal step would be to get a professional assessment, whether your child admits to drug use or not. Sometimes, there could be an underlying mental health problem that no one is aware of.

Before you talk to your child or make any solid moves towards getting help, you need to make sure you and your partner are on the same page. As you talk to your child, they might ask if you never did drugs yourselves, so don’t be surprised if they hint at you being a hypocrite. While it’s important to be honest, you need to avoid providing any form of justification for their behaviour.

Try to anticipate how they might deny using drugs, as you confront them with evidence. You must resolve to remain calm, because they might come at you with anger. Set a realistic goal for them and stipulate your rules and the consequences for breaking them. Be sure that you can go through with whatever consequences you spell out.

Facts about Teen Drug Abuse

Here are some facts about teen drug abuse that could be useful for you:

  • Most teens don’t abuse drugs
  • Teens are more likely to abuse substances if their parents do
  • Teens suffering from psychological issues such as depression are more likely to abuse substances
  • Younger teens are more likely to abuse inhalants such as glue or spray paint than older teens
  • Older teens are more likely to abuse drugs

Treatment and Next Steps

Don’t delay seeking treatment once you discover your teen is having problems reducing or quitting their use of drugs. Your child can get the help they need in teen treatment centres that specialise in targeting the social and emotional issues that resulted in drug use. Such facilities also provide educational support, so you don’t have to worry about your teen missing school.

Like any adult who is dealing with addiction, your teen needs to receive treatment that’s tailored to their individual needs. You can talk to your teen’s doctor about possible options, talk to their guidance counsellor or get in touch with your local council.


Can anyone tell if your teen is using drugs?

Yes; as long as they know the signs to look out for, anyone will be able to tell if your teen is using drugs. More importantly, you should learn about the signs and symptoms yourself, so you can notice and get your teen the help they need.

How can I get my teen to stop using drugs?

The first thing to try is an intervention, whereby you and your spouse/partner talk to your child about their behaviour. If they have trouble quitting after this, speak to a professional about getting them into treatment.

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