Even short-term drug use can have consequences, whether it’s on your teen’s grades, their mood and behavior, or the legal ramifications and permanent mark on their record.
It’s important to act before things get out of hand, and that means seeing the signs of teen drug use as early as possible. Here are some of the most common signs of drug use in teens.
Changes in Behavior and Mood
At their core, addictive drugs are mind-altering. This means they induce a different state of mind, usually one that involves joy or euphoria, together with a sense of calm, or an immediate boost in energy and excitability.
But these short-term effects – that is, the “high” – can lead to long-term issues with your teen’s mental state. Feeling good for a little while is one thing, but what comes up must come down. Research tells us that the more a person uses certain addictive drugs, the more their brain changes to compensate for the regular use of these mind-altering substances, and the changes they elicit in the production and release of neurotransmitters like dopamine.
In other words, your brain produces less and less of the stuff that helps regulate your mood and make you satisfied, and relies more and more on drugs to compensate. This can fundamentally alter a teen’s baseline mood, making them sadder, more anxious, more irritable the longer they rely on drugs.
Differentiating these symptoms from those of a separate mental health issue, such as depression, can be difficult. Look for other signs as well.
Physical and Mental Signs of Drug Use
The telltale physical signs of consistent drug use differ from substance to substance. Frequent alcohol use, for example, will result in slurred speech, lowered cognitive abilities, memory problems, problems with coordination, and a much higher likelihood of high-risk behavior, including drunk driving and unprotected sex.
Teens who have recently been drinking might not be aware of the smell of alcohol on their breath or on their clothing or might not have the foresight to hide it. In the long-term, alcohol use can cause sudden weight gain in teens, as well as heart and liver damage, even at an early age.
Like alcohol, marijuana use can be physically identified in teens through smell and certain physical characteristics. Reddened eyes are a common one. While high-risk behavior is rarer, marijuana use does increase the risk of being in a car accident due to delayed reaction times.
Stimulants affect the heart and, depending on how they’re taken, might cause frequent indigestion or nasal congestion, even nosebleeds. Psychedelics are not generally addictive, but do increase the risk of acute episodes of psychosis – and may be uniquely dangerous to teens with a family history of psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia.
Keep an eye out on your teen’s physical condition, mood, and behavior. Sudden changes – even if they’re presumably positive at first, such as a complete shift towards manic productivity – should be taken seriously and looked into.
Social Withdrawal and Changes in Friendships
Drug use can change you, and it can change the people you tend to hang out with. Friends, relationships, and social interaction are often some of the first casualties of long-term addiction.
Aside from making entirely new (and potentially suspicious) friends, long-term drug use and addiction can escalate a teen’s social withdrawal to the point of total isolation.
Poor Academic Performance and Attendance
Drug use does not always go hand-in-hand with delinquency or academic failure – after all, some addictive drugs are used explicitly as “study aids”. But when drug use turns to addiction, it can become hard to continue to be dedicated to your studies.
Long-term drug use and addiction can affect both cognitive faculties – i.e., thinking skills – and memory, making it more difficult for teens to pay attention, retain information, and succeed in test-taking. If your teen is having a hard time at school, then it might not be a good idea to jump straight to drug use – but it may be a sign, nonetheless.
Run-Ins With the Law
One of the clearest signs of teen drug use is an arrest for drugs – or other criminal behavior that, upon further asking, was intended to fund an ongoing drug hobby.
Teens are naturally inclined to vie for independence and privacy, and it’s normal for them to keep secrets from you. But if they’re regularly disappearing to go off and be alone, excuse themselves from family gatherings and events multiple times a day, and are constantly lying about where they’ve been or what they’ve been doing, then you may have yourself a set of red flags.
Another clear sign of drug use is the appropriate drug paraphernalia – this includes bags with remaining traces of used drugs, an injection kit, an alcoholic flask, or bongs.
Resistance to Help
There are many reasons teens who struggle with addiction resist help. For one, they might be denying their drug use, even after the cat’s out of the bag. Teens can be stubborn sometimes.
Another reason might be that they feel that they can’t get better, or that things have gotten so bad that they don’t feel they deserve to feel better. In these cases, professional help is crucial. Drug use can take a serious mental toll on a teen’s mood and behavior, eliciting feelings of depression and shame.
What To Do Next?
Teenage drug use and addiction is a complicated topic. It’s tempting to try and find something or someone to blame, but it’s not always that easy. There are a lot of factors that contribute to a teen’s willingness to try drugs, and their likelihood of getting addicted. Right now, you need to focus on what to do next.
- Don’t Wait for Rock Bottom – it’s a myth that you can only help someone when they’ve truly “hit rock bottom”. If your teen is addicted, they need help. Don’t give up on them.
- Seek Professional Help – this is not something you should be taking on alone. Talk to a mental health professional or an addiction treatment specialist.
- Plan an Intervention – convincing your teen that they need to get help is always easier said than done. An intervention can be an important first step towards treatment.
- Consider Inpatient Treatment – professional inpatient treatment programs help teens transition into a safe, drug-free environment to learn to cope with their cravings and recover from addiction, before transitioning back into day-to-day living through group therapy and outpatient programs.
It’s always best to accept that it’s not really anyone’s fault – especially not your teen’s – and that the next step should focus on getting them the medical and psychiatric help they need. Work with compassion, understanding, and your love for your child.