Substance Use: Is Your Teen in Trouble?

How to spot signs of a problem

Nancy Knott, a professional adolescent interventionist at Scripps Alcohol & Drug Treatment Center, provides input into how to spot signs of teen substance abuse.

With the end of the school year and the beginning of three months of summer, some parents may find themselves sharing a home with a high school or college student they barely recognize.

While the teen years themselves are typically considered a time of rebellion, rejection of authority and individuation, how can parents tell the difference between the “normal” transition from childhood to adulthood and a potentially dangerous dabbling in alcohol and/or drugs?

Use vs. abuse vs. addiction

“Whenever a young person uses a consciousness-altering substance recreationally—whether that substance is alcohol, prescription medication or illegal drugs—there is the potential for negative consequences,” says Nancy Knott, a professional adolescent interventionist at Scripps Alcohol & Drug Treatment Center.

“Some parents believe it is safer or more realistic to allow limited substance use, like beer drinking, in their own home, under their own supervision,” says Knott.

But even limited or one-time substance use can lead to accidents or injury. And permissive attitudes toward under-age experimentation with alcohol and drugs can open the door to regular future use.

Because adolescent brains are not yet fully developed and teens cannot intellectually process risks as effectively as adults, weekend or casual substance use can spiral into heavier use. Loosened inhibitions can also lead to the use of additional mood-altering substances.

When substance use becomes a regular habit, it can cause personal, legal, school and family difficulties. At this point, the scales have tipped into substance abuse. If accompanied by physical dependency on the drug of choice, these difficulties can signal a full-blown addiction. And that is when stopping on one’s own may become nearly impossible without medical treatment for alcohol and/or drug use.

Know the signs

A teenager who is beginning to slip into an unhealthy substance use pattern will display predictable changes in behavior. Depending on the drug of choice, not all may be present, but more than a few of the following signs and symptoms of substance abuse may indicate the presence of a problem.

Social or school issues

  • Dropping grades
  • Dropping old friends or acquiring a new group of friends
  • Attendance problems
  • Loss of interest in extracurricular activities
  • Not coming home after school when expected

Personal habits and appearance

  • Unexplained weight loss or gain
  • Red eyes
  • Sloppy dress and/or poor hygiene
  • Significant changes in friends, activities
  • Secretive about phone calls, texts or emails

Legal and/or money issues

  • Trouble with police or authority figures
  • Pull-overs, traffic tickets
  • Money missing from others in home

Behavioral issues

  • Lethargic or unusually tired
  • Distant and withdrawn
  • Mood swings, euphoria and/or depression
  • Sneaking, dishonesty and evasion
  • Angry, irritable, hostile
  • Forgetful and distracted
  • Changes in sleep (needing much more or much less than usual)

What to do if you are concerned

If you suspect your teenager is struggling with substance use or abuse, try starting a dialog with them about the issue. Ask tough questions about their drug and alcohol use. Monitor comings and goings. And err on the side of intervening too soon rather than too late.

“Most people who struggle with full-blown addiction later in life began drinking or using as teenagers,” Knott says. “Don’t encourage or tolerate use. You don’t need to be the popular parent. In fact, I would strongly advise you be the unpopular parent.”

Learn more about adolescent interventions

If the teen is not receptive to talking, or if deception and denial make a calm discussion nearly impossible, help is available. Scripps hosts weekly workshops for concerned parents on adolescent substance abuse and interventions.