5 Ways to Spot Teen Drug Use

by Gary Gilles

It’s no secret that drug use among teens is a major concern for both parents and the larger society. Numerous studies have shown the link between teen drug use and a host of problematic behaviors, such as an increased risk of auto accidents, risky sexual behavior, self-harm, mental health issues and poor academic performance. Perhaps as worrisome is the longer-term potential for teens to eventually become addicted to one or more drugs later in life.

Why teens start using drugs

There are a lot of reasons teens start experimenting with drugs in adolescence. The most common reasons include:

  • A desire to fit in with their peers. One study reported that two-thirds of teens say they use drugs to “feel cool” and “feel better about themselves.” Teens often struggle with low self-esteem and are prone to use drugs if they believe it will help them gain acceptance from their peers.
  • Coping with stress. Studies have shown that the number one reason teens report for using drugs is to cope with the overwhelming stress and pressures they face. School performance is a major source of this stress but problems with peers and families also play into these pressures for many teens. Unfortunately, only a small percentage of parents recognize the degree of stress their teens regularly experience.
  • Depression. It’s not easy to be an adolescent in today’s world. Some studies have found that as many as 70% of teens suffer from undiagnosed clinical depression at some time during their life. Many teens don’t label their struggle as depression and attempt to cope with their symptoms by using drugs.
  • Easy access to drugs. Ask teens if they know where to find drugs and most will say it’s easy. If they don’t know where to get drugs, they know who to ask to find out. These drugs range from heroin to marijuana and prescription stimulants such as those used to treat ADHD symptoms. Most of these drugs are relatively cheap and since teens have discretionary spending money at their disposal, they have easy access to them.
  • Misinformation about drugs. Studies have shown that teens consistently underestimate the dangers associated with drugs. For example, one study showed that 40% of teens didn’t see any major risk in trying heroin once or twice. In reality, heroin is one of the most addictive drugs available.

If you are a parent of a teen or work directly with teens you can often intervene before destructive patterns set in if you know what you’re looking for. Here are 5 ways to spot teen drug use.

  1. Withdrawal from family and established friendships

The first sign that something of concern may be going on for your teen is a change in established friendships. It’s not unusual that teens make new friends but when they are quick to distance themselves from longer-term relationships or start hanging out with people they don’t want you to know about, this should catch your attention. You might also notice that they are more combative when you try to engage them in conversation or they deliberately spend more time isolating themselves from family activities such as meals or other outings. This withdrawal or isolation from family and friends may be their way of protecting their secretive use of drugs.

  1. Mood changes

Teens naturally experience a fluctuation in mood to some degree due to hormonal changes taking place during adolescence. But when your teen responds in a particularly uncharacteristic manner, such as overreacting following a trivial disagreement or showing signs of indifference when an emotional response would be appropriate, it merits a closer look. Some drugs stimulate mood causing heightened reactions that can be violent or threatening while other drugs act as depressants and can bring on depression and apathy. Crying spells and mood swings are also common traits of drug use along with an overall feeling that their life is out of control.

  1. Lack of motivation

Closely associated with mood changes is a lack of overall motivation for things that used to be interesting or engaging. Teens are typically interested in trying new things and meeting new people. There is a natural curiosity that most teens exhibit for sports, dating, games, hobbies, cars, etc. When this natural curiosity seems lost in apathy and is sustained for a period of time, it indicates that something is going on. It may or may not be drug use but you should not eliminate the possibility that drugs may be involved until you dig deeper into the source of their apathy.

  1. Neglect of personal hygiene or appearance

Most teens are very conscious of their appearance. Even if they want to create the impression that they just threw on a particular outfit and walked out the door, they typically work hard to create the image of how they want others to perceive them. If your teen seems genuinely unconcerned about their appearance or hygiene and this is uncharacteristic of them, inquire about their behavior. Or, if you see clothing choices that seem out of season, such as long-sleeved shirts in very warm weather, it may be a sign that they are trying to hide something, such as needle marks on their arms.

  1. Drop in school performance

Teens have varying degrees of interest in school. Some naturally excel; others struggle. Poor school performance may or may not be related to drug use. But, a sudden drop in school performance, uncharacteristic truancy or threats to drop-out of school should be taken seriously.

The key to spotting these possible signs of drug use in teens is keen observation and communication. Many studies have shown that a parent’s involvement plays a critical role in preventing drug use in teens. When drug experimentation is suspected, a parent’s intervention at an early stage is an effective deterrent in many instances. When teens learn about the risks associated with drugs from their parents, there is a substantial reduction in teen drug use. Unfortunately, only about 1 in 3 teens get this information from their parents.

If you see any of these signs, talk to your teen about what is going on. Don’t immediately jump to the conclusion that they are using drugs. Ask questions, listen carefully, explore their feelings and the meanings behind what they say. When you take this reasoned approach you send the message that you deeply care how they are feeling and what they might be struggling with. A strong relationship is your best means of preventing and/or intervening into a situation where drugs might be involved.

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