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Is Your Teen's Behavior Typical Adolescence or Substance Abuse?

Warning signs can signal adolescent substance abuse

A group of teenagers wearing sunglasses gather in a sunny outdoor environment.

by Julie Kunin, Ph.D.

Your eighth-grade daughter used to be a star sprinter, but lately she’s lost interest in the track team.

Your 16-year-old son seems to have a whole new set of friends, and you barely know their names. Is this normal teenage behavior or something worse? Adolescent substance abuse is not only on the rise, it is beginning at increasingly younger ages.

Whereas the high school years used to be the most common time for kids to try alcohol and drugs, we’ve found that most experimentation now begins in middle school, often between the seventh and eighth grades.

For many kids, using alcohol and drugs is a way of finding their place in a new school or “fitting in” with a desired peer group. For parents, it can be the beginning of a nightmare.

Stay alert for teen warning signs

Fortunately, by keeping your eyes, ears and lines of communication open, you can get a handle on substance abuse before it becomes a serious problem.

Look for warning signs that may suggest your child is using substances. Poor academic performance is often cited, but if a student has always performed poorly, this probably isn’t a valid indicator.

Moreover, we’ve seen top students use cocaine and stimulants to keep themselves awake during prolonged study sessions, thus maintaining their high grades.

If a student who usually gets good grades begins to slide, that warrants attention. Such changes from the norm can be key, not just changes in school performance, but in friends, interests and behavior.

Here are just a handful of scenarios that may prompt you to take a closer look at your son or daughter’s activities:

  • Changes in Friends
    Substance abuse often goes hand-in-hand with a new social circle. Your son or daughter may spend less time with their old friends in favor of a new group that you rarely see or talk to. They don’t come to your house, you’ve never met them or their parents — and you may not even know their names.
  • Changes in Activities
    Your active, outgoing child drops out of extracurricular activities. He spends less time playing sports and more time alone in his room. Marijuana is one of the first drugs most students try, and it can cause a marked drop in motivation.
  • Changes in Attitude
    Your normally open and talkative daughter becomes secretive, aloof or evasive. She doesn’t talk to you as much as she used to and won’t look you in the eye. When you ask what she and her friends did that day, you hear, “Nothing, just hung out.” Or, your well-mannered son becomes defensive, defiant or argumentative. He sneaks out of the house, cuts school and disregards rules. He frequently clashes with family members or fights with friends or classmates.
  • Behavioral & Physical Changes
    Your daughter is outgoing and friendly one day, sullen and withdrawn the next. Her reactions are inappropriate or seem to come out of nowhere. She is overly sensitive to innocuous remarks, or she is markedly depressed. She may show physical signs of substance abuse: poor coordination, slurred speech, falling asleep in school, excessive sleeping or staying awake all night.

Differentiating between red flags and normal behavior

Excessive sleeping, moodiness and spending less time with family can be considered typical — albeit irritating — adolescent behavior. How do you know if your teenager has a problem, or is simply being a teenager?

You don’t. That’s why the best thing for a parent to do is talk about it.

For starters, just ask. Sit down with your child and tell him about the changes you’ve seen and the concerns you have. Make it clear that you are not criticizing; rather, you care about what is going on in his life, and you are available to help if needed.

Don’t be afraid to ask point blank if he is using drugs or alcohol. Explain that it is normal to experiment at that age and that you are concerned about what might happen if he continues to use. Offer to get help.

Nearly every adolescent who has come through our program was afraid of his or her parents’ reaction to learning that their child was using drugs. Make an effort to remain calm, and approach the issue from a point of wanting to help your child, not punish him.

Accessing resources to treat teen substance abuse

Keep in mind that this is not a battle you have to fight alone. There are plenty of resources available to help you and your family with substance abuse problems.

The Scripps Student Assistance Program is a school-based prevention and early intervention program for students whose behavior indicates they may have problems related to alcohol or other drugs. The program offers free assessments, as well as drug testing and educational and support services for students and their families.

If you suspect there is a problem but don’t know where to turn, such programs can be a valuable first step in getting your family back on track.

Julie Kunin, Ph.D., is program director for the Scripps Student Assistance Program and supervisor of adolescent services for the Scripps McDonald Center.