We all know drugs can have tremendous, detrimental effects on a person mentally, physically, and emotionally, especially teens and young adults whose brains are still developing. You never want your child to start abusing drugs or alcohol, but, should he start, you would hope to pick on it as soon as possible in order to step in and prevent future use.
Unfortunately, recognizing teen drug abuse isn’t always easy. Obviously, your child will do his best to hide his actions from you, and it can be difficult to spot signs of use if you don’t know what to look for.
In addition to differences in your teen’s personality or attitude, hearing frequent use of drug slang, and finding paraphernalia or other physical evidence, changes in behavior can be one of the most prominent indicators that your child has started doing drugs. This article will address six of the most prevalent behavioral signs, examples of these behaviors, and how to approach your teen about them.
#1) …Meh, I Don’t Care
By the time your child is a teenager, she has likely developed a personally unique combination of interests, hobbies, and passions. Basketball, cooking, comic books, running, art, skateboarding, underwater basket weaving, and everything in between—whatever it is she enjoys and is enthusiastic about is a big part of what makes her who she is. As are your teen’s friends and with whom she spends her time.
Drug use can change all that.
For many teenagers who abuse substances, drug use doesn’t become merely another “hobby” in their lives; it’s the hobby. Everything else tends to fall by the wayside.
Teens may lose interest in some or all of their favorite activities and passions, hollowly going through the motions, generally becoming lethargic toward doing them, or stopping altogether. They might abruptly quit the sports team after working so hard to make the squad or unexpectedly dump friends they’ve known for years and find new, unexpected people to hang out with. Even their appetites may change; your teen might become indifferent to foods she once loved, significantly eat less at all, or have sudden sessions of intense snacking (aka “the munchies”).
While it’s true teens’ interests and relationships often change naturally over time, a sudden disinterest in a hobby or apathy toward all or nearly all of his interests suggest something more is going on, which you should investigate. Ask why your teen stopped or appears to no longer care about a certain activity. Do her answers seem both reasonable and genuine?
Also look at how your teen approaches responsibilities such as his chores, job, and schoolwork. Is he all of a sudden neglecting these duties or is there a dramatic drop in his performance of them?
If your child is using drugs, he may seem to have absolutely no motivation to fulfill his obligations or routinely avoid them. Perhaps he gets fired from work for constantly showing up late or his grades unexpectedly plummet.
The starker the contrast between your kid’s former self and his actions now, the more worrisome this current behavior should be. If your teen has, since childhood, never been quick to embrace school and other responsibilities, his present lack of enthusiasm may not immediately suggest substance abuse (though it is an issue on its own). With teenagers who used to be honor roll students always on top of everything but now push off their chores and bring home failing report cards, however, clearly something is going on behind the scenes that is instigating this change. Substance use is a definite possibility.
Speaking of grades and report cards, discipline problems at school can also be a warning sign. Teachers and other school officials may see a whole other side of your teen and catch behavior that you either miss or your child does not display when around you.
Habitually ditching class, fighting, frequent detention, and suspension are all severe issues that are cause for concern and might be a consequence of drug abuse. They may additionally signify a disrespect for authority and rules, which could escalate to trouble with the law in the future.
If your child is getting in trouble at school, seek out a meeting with his teacher, counselor, or whoever else is close to the situation and can give you insight into what is going on. They can help identify the root cause of your teen’s behavior issues and develop a dual strategy—you at home and them at school—to mitigate or resolve the conflict.
Counselors are also an excellent resource and should be one of the first people you turn to if indeed your teen is abusing drugs or alcohol.
#2) Showers, Shirts, and Shades
This disinterest and neglect of hobbies and responsibilities can additionally spread to some of the most basic duties like personal hygiene and grooming. Beyond the visible, physical effects substance use can have on somebody, your teen’s general appearance might suffer as she showers, brushes her teeth, wears deodorant, and combs her hair less and less, perhaps even entirely. She might not care about her clothes at all, letting them get gross and dirty, or wear the same items day after day after day.
Sure, there are those teenagers going for an ironic “just rolled out of bed” look, limit their showering after embracing some water conservation movement, or just generally grow lazier as they get older, but any excessive, gross decline in taking care of these basic needs could be a sign of trouble.
This is especially true of any teen that formerly took great pride in her appearance and always kept up on hygiene. In other words, the more time it took your child to get ready in the morning before, the more a warning bell should go off when she doesn’t care at all now.
In regard specifically to clothing, the opposite of not caring—being very particular about certain articles and fashions—can also be a potential warning sign. Be on the lookout for your teen wearing the same colors, numbers, logos, or accessories every day and if his friends all have the exact same, specific style. Either of these trends could indicate gang involvement, which usually goes hand in hand with substance use, violence, and trouble with the law.
Even if neither of these signs occur, pay attention to how your teen dresses. What people choose to wear is often a big insight into who they are or their current beliefs and state of mind. A sudden and dramatic change in your teen’s style can be a big clue about changes in his life. Whether that change is simply a desire to try out new fashion, a personal crisis, experimenting with substance use, or anything in between, it is your job to take notice and find out what exactly the catalyst for change is.
Finally, be aware of clothing and accessories that celebrate drug culture or may be used to conceal the physical effects of substance abuse. Teens using drugs may frequently wear sunglasses, even at night or indoors, to hide their red, bloodshot, or dilated eyes, or dress in big sweatshirts or jackets, regardless of how warm the weather is, to cover up scabs and needle marks on their arms.
#3) It’s All about the Benjamins
Follow the money.
As any journalist investigating a scandal or detective solving a crime would tell you, money is almost always a key factor to pay attention to.
In the case of your teen possibly using drugs, the mysterious absence of money can be cause for concern.
Let’s say your teen has a job. You know she doesn’t spend much on gas or food or anything, yet she always complains she’s broke and constantly asks for money. It is possible she’s spending her money on something else she keeps secret from you.
Asking for money in itself is not necessarily a warning sign, especially if your child doesn’t have a job or allowance, as kids tastes in what to do for fun generally grow more expensive as they become teenagers. However, being unable to explain what she did with money you gave her is.
In addition, pay attention to how your teen reacts whenever you decline her request for cash or the amount she wanted. Is she shockingly and unreasonably angry (beyond typical hormonal teenage standards), clearly desperate for the money?
Whether your teen just reacted adversely to you refusing her money or not, it is always a troubling sign when your own money is unaccounted for. Lost cash, missing credit cards, perhaps even a mysteriously emptied, once-full coin jar—if these occur with any sort of frequency, it might suggest that your teen is taking them from you.
Stealing is never okay and a deeply troubling action that in itself, regardless of the reason behind it, is wrong and must be addressed. While your teen may have wanted the cash simply for a movie ticket or dinner, there is also a good chance that he took the money to buy drugs, alcohol, or some other illegal or dangerous item or service. Moreover, if your child is willing to cross the line and steal from you, he potentially is willing to cross other lines and engage in other activities he knows are wrong and disallowed.
Pay attention to how much money your teen has and where it comes from. Even if he is not stealing money from you, the mysterious presence of money can also be a warning signal.
Does he have a lot of unexplained cash around? Is your teen suddenly able to make numerous expensive purchases (such as all those clothes for his dramatic change in style)? This should be especially worrying if your teen does not have a job or does not work, make, or save enough to explain how he can afford them.
These may be signals that your child is not only using drugs but dealing them as well.
If your teen displays any of the aforementioned behaviors, don’t immediately panic. There are numerous reasons besides substance use that can propel these actions, from other serious concerns such as bullying or depression to simply naturally growing up. Your child is going to change as she transitions into a teenager and, later, adult, and her behaviors, choices, and interests will likely transform as well. It can be tough, knowing exactly what is causing what.
If a change strikes you as particularly odd, abrupt, or unnatural, start by talking to your teen about it. Embrace this opportunity for communication, honesty, and understanding instead of instantly jumping to conclusions.
At the same time, trust your instincts about certain behaviors and whether your child is telling the truth in her explanations. If things still don’t feel right, if her answers don’t add up or she continually avoids your questions, your teen is probably hiding something.
Keep track of her behavioral changes, as well as other possible signs of teen drug use. And should you learn of highly suspect your teen is abusing drugs or alcohol, see our tips on how to best intervene.
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By Tyler Wroblewski
Click here for Part 2 covering two more behaviors that might indicate your teen is using drugs or alcohol.
Concerned Woman: From Conor Lawless at https://www.flickr.com/photos/conchur/419990808
Cooking: From Seattle Parks at https://www.flickr.com/photos/seattleparks/5632134823
Bored Face: From https://pixabay.com/p-146915/?no_redirect
Dirty Dishes: From User:Mysid (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Studying: From Haque, Abul, Photographer (NARA record: 8467822) (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Classroom: From ajari from Japan [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Women in Meeting: From https://www.pexels.com/photo/businesswomen-businesswoman-interview-meeting-70292/
Crazy Hair: From Joshua Rothhaas as https://www.flickr.com/photos/joshuarothhaas/2251211039/in/photostream/
Men All Dressed the Same: From Unitedgangsespañol (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Weed Shirts: From m01229 at https://www.flickr.com/photos/39908901@N06/20988976518
Out Turned Pockets: From https://pixabay.com/p-1439412/?no_redirect
Money in Wallet: From 401(K) 2012 at https://www.flickr.com/photos/68751915@N05/6722544475
Pile of Money: From Tracy O at https://www.flickr.com/photos/tracy_olson/61056391
Drug Deal: From Kelvyn Skee at https://www.flickr.com/photos/kelvynskee/5027288100