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Studies show that three in five teens in the 12th grade have had a drink, and about half of all teens in the US have tried an illicit substance at any given point in time, whether a bit of weed or something much stronger. 

While teenage drug use has historically fallen, overdose deaths have become more prevalent in recent years than ever before, thanks to the availability of dangerous and powerful substances like fentanyl, which are often mixed into cheaper street drugs to make them more potent. It’s important for parents to understand as much as they can about how and when drug use becomes an issue in teens, and what kind of signs and symptoms to watch out for.  

Common Signs of Substance Abuse in Teens

It’s often a little more complicated than looking for bloodshot eyes or a glassy look. Not all drugs have the same side effects, and some of the physical and mental effects of drug use do overlap with normal stress responses or signs of other physical and mental health conditions. Generally speaking, the only definitive way to determine if your teen has been using drugs is if they truthfully tell you, if they get tested, or if you find drug paraphernalia on their person alongside signs that they’ve been using. 

If your teen has had a history of drug use in the past, then looking out for signs of relapse is especially important. Different substances come with different telltale symptoms, but there are a few common warning signs. 

Changes in Behavior and Thinking

Whether it’s booze or street drugs, these substances are mind-altering at their core. A sudden and severe change in a teen’s behavior and ways of thinking might be indicative of a problem, such as substance abuse. Lying about going out, lying about where they’ve been, or lying about who they’ve been with are some classic signs as well. 

If your teen has been well-behaved usually, but has suddenly turned into a rule-breaker and disrespects their family members regularly, then something might be off. Don’t pin it on drugs without any proof, however – many of these signs can also mean that your teen is struggling with mental and physical changes, stress at school or with friends, or might be in need of a counselor for a different issue. 

More extreme changes warrant a more immediate response, such as criminal activity, physical altercations, or assaulting a friend or family member. 

Physical Signs and Symptoms

Long-term drug use can have a definite effect on the body, especially the liver, kidneys, lungs, brain, and heart. Different drugs affect people in different ways, but nearly all addictive substances can be tough on the endocrine system, brain, and heart. Sudden changes in health and massive shifts in appetite (up or down) alongside strange behavior and changes in a teen’s emotional state may be a sign of drug use. 

Again, talk to a doctor first. Irritability, emotional shifts, and a drop in physical health could also be a sign of an undiagnosed condition like diabetes or hypoglycemia. 

The Importance of Asking for Professional Support

If you suspect that your teen is using drugs, or is using drugs again, voice your concerns to a mental health professional as well as a medical doctor. You could also talk to your teen’s pediatric doctor about screening for drug use, and bring up any suspicious symptoms or changes that you’ve noticed, at home or at school. A lab test will always be better than a home test.  

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning more about teen drug use is important, which is why we often field questions from parents who want to know more about teen substance abuse, how to prevent it, and what to watch out for. Some of the most commonly asked questions we hear include: 

How can I distinguish normal teenage behavior from substance abuse?

Sometimes it’s more obvious – maybe they’ve come home a few too many times smelling strongly like booze. Sometimes, it’s a little more difficult. Accusing your teen of using drugs without proof may be irresponsible, however. Some of the emotional signs of drug use overlap with a stress response, grief, or even something more serious, like a depressive mood. If you’re worried about drug use, gauge their response when asking them about it – or look for physical signs. 

What should I do if I find drugs or alcohol in my teen’s possession?

It might not be in your best interest to confront your teen immediately. Things could get hectic, emotional, and escalate – sometimes into an unsalvageable fight. Your teen will be defensive if they haven’t already admitted to using, especially if they’ve been adamant about never trying anything. Consider calling a professional and developing an intervention with your family. It’s important not to frame it as an ambush – but being prepared can go a long way towards ensuring that the conversation isn’t steered into an unproductive fight, and instead centers around help and understanding. 

How can I talk to my teen if I think they’re using drugs?

While you might want to talk your teen, it’s possible that they don’t want to talk to you. Coaxing them into a conversation can be difficult, especially if their behavior or drug use has strained your relationship. Be sure to examine the way you interact with them and try to examine your language and approach. As difficult as it might seem, your best bet might be to talk with a therapist or professional first. 

Finding Help for Your Teen

If your teen’s actions steer much closer towards recurring and problematic use, it’s important to talk to a professional sooner rather than later. 

We at Visions Adolescent Treatment help parents and families with substance use disorder problems through our teen residential treatment programs, which include help for dual diagnoses, or a mental health condition coupled with teen substance abuse. 


Drug use and drug addiction are two different topics, with a very important distinctions. Both can be scary, but it’s also important to examine your initial reaction to what, in many cases, may be an example of formative experimentation. That is not to say that teenage drug use should ever be trivialized – but it is also important to consider the circumstances and potential context around your teen’s behavior and discuss the specifics of your family’s situation with a professional before making your next move. Give us a call at Visions Adolescent Treatment, at 1-866-889-3665, and we will help you figure out what’s next. 

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