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How Can I Tell if My Teenager is Using Drugs or Other Substances?

November 8, 2022

Expected teen behavior and signs of substance use disorder may look similar. Learn about the symptoms of teen substance use disorder and what to do next.

Have you noticed your teen behaving differently for a period of time? Are they no longer hanging out with or talking with their friends? Have they made new friends you’ve never met? Do they seem more secretive? Are they arguing with you more?

Or, if you’re a teen who regularly uses drugs or alcohol, have your friends or family told you that you seem different? Even if you don’t think your drug use is a problem, have they said some things that may have upset you, but now you’re wondering whether they may be true?

Research shows that the younger a child is when they first try a substance, the more likely they are to continue to use that substance and develop a substance use disorder.

Early drug use can affect some important brain developments, too.

But there is good news: Getting help for a substance use disorder during the teen years often means they’ll recover successfully.

What is a substance use disorder?

Even though alcohol and many drugs are illegal for teens, many young people still experiment for various reasons. The most common substances teens may misuse are:

  • alcohol
  • cannabis
  • tobacco
  • inhalants, including breathing the fumes of glues, household cleaners, or pens
  • synthetic cannabinoids like K2 or spice
  • prescription medication, including opioids
  • cough medicine
  • sedatives
  • MDMA (ecstasy)

When someone uses these or other substances on a regular basis, a healthcare professional may diagnose a substance use disorder.

Your teen may have a substance use disorder if they:

  • take more of the substance than they intended, or take it for longer than they intended
  • cannot decrease or stop using the substance
  • spend a lot of time doing things to get, use, or recover from the substance
  • have cravings for the substance
  • are using the substance so much that they’re unable to do things like go to school or work, or handle their responsibilities at home
  • continue to use the substance even though they’re having problems with friends or family because of their substance use
  • decrease the amount of time they spend with friends or doing activities they once enjoyed, or stop doing them entirely
  • use the substance under circumstances that may not be safe
  • continue to use the substance even though they know that it’s causing them problems
  • have built up a tolerance to the substance
  • experience withdrawal symptoms if they stop taking the substance, or take it to prevent those withdrawal symptoms

Signs your teen may have a substance use disorder

It can be difficult to determine whether your teen is acting differently because they’re simply going through adolescence or if they have developed a substance use disorder.

Still, there are some common signs to look for that may indicate a substance use disorder.

Changes in appearance

Most teens care about how they look. They may prefer a certain brand or style of clothing, or a specific haircut based on the latest trends.

But teens with a substance use disorder may not seem to care as much about their looks, and choose to focus their attention more on the substance.

Changes in eating and sleeping habits

If your teen has developed a substance use disorder, you may notice that they eat or sleep too much or too little.

Some substances, like amphetamines, may make your teen feel as though they don’t need a lot of food or sleep. Others, like cannabis, may cause them to eat and sleep more than they did before.

Changes in their social group

Making new friends obviously doesn’t always mean something negative. But if your teen suddenly seems to surround themselves with a whole new group of people who greatly seem to differ in personality from their previous group of friends, it may be something to pay attention to.

If their old friends weren’t using drugs or alcohol, they may not fit in with your teen’s new lifestyle. So, your teen may begin to hang out with people who have the same interests and enjoy the same substances.

Lack of social activities

If your teen is no longer interested in playing the sports or participating in the clubs they once enjoyed, a substance use disorder could be getting in the way.

Sometimes they’re no longer interested because substance use has become more important. Other times, it’s because they may feel embarrassed or wish to hide their substance use.

Other changes in behaviors

Everyone goes through changes in mood and behaviors from time to time. Teens are no exception. They can be moody and distant one day and warm and cordial the next.

But when your teen has developed a substance use disorder, changes in mood and behavior may be more severe, to the point where it seems to you that their entire personality has changed.

You may notice they:

  • appear depressed or angry all of the time
  • ignore their chores or responsibilities
  • get annoyed more easily
  • get in trouble at school or with the police
  • have an overall negative attitude
  • have low self-esteem
  • lie, steal, or break curfew
  • show poor judgement
  • skip school or work
  • start arguments or physical fights
  • no longer study and their grades have dropped

Who’s at risk?

Anyone can develop a substance use disorder, but certain situations or conditions can make someone more likely to try or misuse drugs or alcohol.

Risk factors based on early life

A person may be more likely to develop a substance use disorder if they:

  • were physically or sexually abused as a child
  • experienced another trauma as a child

Risk factors based on co-occurring conditions

Your teen’s risk of substance use disorder increases if they:

  • have one or more mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, or ADHD
  • use drugs or alcohol to manage their emotions

Risk factors based on family surroundings

Children may be more likely to develop a substance use disorder if:

  • their biological mother misused substances during pregnancy
  • one or both parents, or other close relatives, have a substance use disorder
  • the parents or other caregivers don’t actively discourage drug or alcohol use
  • they lack parental supervision
  • the parents or family don’t accept the teen’s sexual or gender identity

Risk factors based on school and peers

Social factors may also influence whether someone develops a substance use disorder. For example, a teen may start misusing substances if they:

  • don’t feel connected or motivated at school
  • don’t make good grades at school
  • have become friends with other teens who use substances
  • don’t have a lot of friends at school
  • are being bullied

Next steps

If you’re a teen and you feel like you can no longer control your substance use, consider finding someone to talk to. If you’re not yet comfortable talking with your parents, reach out to a teacher, school counselor, or other adult you trust.

You — or your parent — can also call the ASCO Intake Department at 1 (800) 263-2288. This is a free, confidential treatment and information service.

If you’re the parent, the first step is to review the signs and symptoms above. Then, make a plan to talk with your teen. If your teen has a substance use disorder, remember that help is available.

Once you’ve received a diagnosis, a personalized treatment program can help you overcome your substance use disorder.

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