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A Parent's Guide to Spotting the Signs of Teen Substance Abuse

Signs & Symptoms

How can you tell if your child is using drugs: it is difficult because changes in mood or attitudes, unusual temper outbursts, changes in sleeping habits , changes in hobbies or other interests are common in teens.

What Should You Look For / Warning Signs?
  • Negative changes in schoolwork; missing school or declining grades
  • Increased secrecy about possessions or activities
  • Use of incense, room deodorant or perfume to hide smoke or chemical odors
  • Subtle changes in conversations with friends, e.g. more secretive, using coded language
  • New Friends
  • Change in clothing choices – new fascination with clothes that highlight drug use
  • Increase in borrowing money
  • Evidence of drug paraphernalia such as pipes, rolling papers.
  • Evidence of inhaling products and accessories, such as airplane glue, hairspray, nail polish. Correction fluid, paper bags and rags, common household products
  • Bottles of eye drops, which may be used to mask bloodshot eyes or dilated pupils.
  • New or frequent use of mouthwash or breath mints to cover up the smell of alcohol
  • Missing prescription drugs-especially narcotics and mood stabilizers
Your Teen is at a Crossroads

Parents are sometimes afraid that they will push their children away by talking to them about drug use. You may be worried that your child will get in trouble with the law and that may affect his or her ability to get a job or qualify for scholarships. But kids who make a choice – one or more times- to use drugs or alcohol are at a crossroads and need your help. Overcoming your own fears is an important step in getting help for your child.

Family members- even parents- sometimes introduce kids to alcohol and drugs. Parents need to acknowledge their own problem if they are going to help their children with theirs.

The most important thing to remember is that it is never too late to take action regarding your kid’s substance abuse. Parents are the most important part of a kid’s life; your actions on their behalf can make a difference.

What Do You Do When?

When you have a suspicion, what do you do? First, learn as much as you can. Check out for information on drug and alcohol use by teens. Or you can call the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information (NACDI) for free pamphlets and fact sheets. They’ll even send the information in a plan envelope, if you wish. They can be reached at 1-800-788-2800.

The next thing you can do is sit down and talk with your child. Be sure to have the conversation when all of you are calm and have plenty of time. This isn’t an easy task. Your feelings may range from anger to guilt, or you may feel that you have “failed” because your kid is using drugs. This isn’t true. By staying involved, you can help them to stop using drugs or alcohol and to make choices that will make a positive difference in their lives.

Tell your child what you are seeing and how you feel about it. Be specific about the things you have observed that cause concern. Make it known that you found drug paraphernalia (or empty cans or bottles). Explain exactly how their behavior or appearance (bloodshot eyes, different clothing) has changed and why that worries you. Tell them you’ve notices that they have new friends that you don’t necessarily know or approve of.

It is important to set clear ground rules in your family about drug and alcohol use- e.g. in this family, we don’t smoke marijuana- and to let your kids know that you will enforce these rules.