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How to Tell if a Teen is Using Drugs and Alcohol: Warning Signs of Teenaged Drug Abuse Can Be Hard to Catch

According to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, illicit drug use among teenagers is down. This is good news, but it’s not the only news. Alcohol use is up among the underage crowd, as is the abuse of prescription and over-the-counter medicines. Given these facts, it’s normal for a parent to be concerned about whether or not their teen is using or abusing drugs and alcohol.

Unfortunately, teenagers don’t wear signs around their necks telling parents the status of their drug use. And many parents are uncomfortable talking to their children about the subject. Drug abuse causes a personality and behavior shift in a teen. But lots of normal teen behavior is erratic, so it can be hard to know if moodiness is a result of adolescent hormonal surges or substance abuse.

Physical Signs that a Teenager May be Using Drugs

Finding drugs or drug paraphernalia in a teen’s room, car or backpack is a strong sign that he might be using. If confronted with physical evidence, many teens will deny the drugs are theirs and say they belong to a friend. This is almost never true.

Drugs and their ingestion methods come in many forms, but here are some things to watch for:

  • pills (oxycontin, xanax, vicodin, codeine, ecstasy)
  • powders (cocaine, heroin, meth)
  • leafy, sweet smelling herbs or rolled cigarettes (marijuana)
  • mushrooms (psychedelic mushrooms)
  • tiny tabs of paper (acid)
  • beer, wine or liquor bottles
  • water bongs
  • small pipes
  • lighters
  • spoons
  • needles

Home and School Signs that a Teen May be Using Drugs

Drug use is sometimes the culprit when a teenager suddenly starts bringing home lower grades or reports of incomplete assignments. Truancy often becomes an issue. A normally well-behaved child may suddenly begin getting detentions for behavior problems such as disrespect of teachers, classmates and property. He may also begin skipping practices or meetings for extracurricular commitments like sports, band or yearbook.

At home, he may withdraw from regular family activities, spend long amounts of time alone in his room and stop doing expected chores. Angry or violent outbursts can indicate a drug problem, as can a noticeable decline in personal hygiene. Some teenagers who are abusing drugs will take medications (both prescription and non prescription) found in the homes of their parents or other close relatives.

Emotional and Social Signs that a Teenager May Be Using Drugs

A teenager who is using illicit substance often changes his group of friends, seemingly overnight. He may speak poorly of old friends and criticize them for their choices or beliefs. He may also withdraw from groups that have always been important to him like church or Boy Scouts. Changes in his daily sleep or activity routines can also be a warning sign.

Other behaviors to watch out for include:

  • depression
  • sleeping more than usual
  • anxiety
  • paranoia
  • extreme weight gain or loss in a short period of time (three months)
  • blatant defiance or disobedience
  • erratic mood swings from high to low

In some cases, these behaviors are common in all teenagers, but if three or more of them are present, it is a good idea to consult a professional for further evaluation. It is also a good idea to learn how to talk to a teenager about drugs and alcohol. There are a number of options for help for a young person whose life is being affected by drug and alcohol abuse, to include treatment programs and 12 step recovery groups.

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