Teen Drug Use Warning Signs

Parents Need to Know the Signs of Teen Drug Abuse

Teenager (16-18) smoking hand rolled cigarette
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Unfortunately, there are a plethora of different drugs available to today's teens. From marijuana and heroine to opioids and prescription medications, your teen has likely seen a lot of different drugs out there. Consequently, identifying the signs of drug use is a little more complicated than just looking for "glassy eyes"—especially because not all drugs have the same side effects.

What's more, there is evidence that teens are getting involved with drugs as early as 6th grade or between 12 and 14 years of age. What's more, one study found that the risk of drug use, alcohol use, cigarette smoking, and even vaping or juuling are largely found during the teen and young adult years.

As a result, it's important for parents to be able to recognize the most common warning signs signaling that a teen is experimenting with drugs—and then take action to help their teen. Here are just a few potential red flags to be on the look out for when it comes to teen drug us.

Signs in the Home

It's never easy to learn that your teen is using drugs, but it's important to be aware of the warning signs of drug use, especially in your home. Keep in mind that most subtle signs involve changes in behaviors rather than physical signs like drug odors and bloodshot eyes, which kids find creative ways of hiding. Here are some things that could indicate that your teen is using drugs.

  • Loses interest in family activities
  • Disrespects family members and family rules
  • Withdraws from responsibilities
  • Abuses others emotionally, verbally, or physically
  • Displays a sudden increase or decrease in appetite
  • Loses valuable items or money
  • Starts breaking curfew or sneaking out of the house
  • Refuses to tell you where they are going
  • Gives excuses for bad behavior
  • Spends a lot of time in their room
  • Lies about activities or where they're going
  • Hides drug-related items in their pockets or their room including cigarette rolling papers, pipes, roach clips, small glass vials, plastic baggies, seeds, powders, and more

Other signs of potential drug use include discovering that you are missing money, prescription drugs, or even spoons from your home. Likewise, if your teen smells like incense, uses eye drops, chews gum, or eats breath mints more frequently, these things also could be signs of drug use.

Signs at School

Almost always, changes in school performance indicate there is a problem brewing with your teen. Sometimes the changes are due to bullying or mental health issues like depression or anxiety. But, these signs also could indicate that your teen is using drugs. Anytime, you notice these warning signs though, you should investigate. Here's an overview of the most common school-related signs of drug use.

  • Experiences a sudden drop in grades
  • Starts being truant from or late to school
  • Loses interest in learning
  • Sleeps in class
  • Displays poor work performance
  • Refuses or forgets to complete homework
  • Defies authority and breaks rules
  • Displays a poor attitude toward sports or other extracurricular activities
  • Struggles to remember things or has a short attention span
  • Fails to inform you of teacher meetings, open houses, etc.

Physical and Emotional Signs

When it comes to the emotional signs of drug use, it's easy to miss the warning signs because teens tend to be moody and irritable. Their friend groups often change too, but sometimes this can signal that they are headed down the wrong path. In fact, a change in friend groups is one of the first signs of drug use.

If you notice a number of the signs on this list, it's time to consider that something else may be going on. Here's an overview of the most common physical and emotional signs of drug use.

  • Changes friends or starts hanging out with a new crowd
  • Smells like alcohol or marijuana (on breath or on body)
  • Displays mood swings and erratic behavior
  • Tends to be negative, argumentative, paranoid, confused, destructive, or anxious
  • Overreacts to criticism and acts rebellious
  • Shares few if any details about their personal life
  • Fails to be as happy as they used to be
  • Seems overly tired or hyperactive
  • Experiences a drastic weight loss or weight gain
  • Appears unhappy and depressed
  • Cheats, steals, or engages in other criminal activities
  • Needs money all the time (or has excessive amounts of money)
  • Looks sloppy and has poor hygiene

Why You Should Pay Attention

It can be tempting to minimize or dismiss the warning signs of drug use. In fact, almost every potential red flag likely can be explained away by something else. Whether you suspect drugs, teen hormones, or a mental health issue though, these signs are worth paying attention to.

Certainly, not every warning sign on these lists indicates a teen is doing drugs, but every teen who does drugs does things on these lists.

If you find that some of these warning signs fit your teen, take a look at the whole picture. Regardless of whether or not your teen is using drugs, these signs indicate that something is wrong and that your teen needs your help.

To start, become more involved in your teen's life and find out what they're doing, where they're going, and who they're with. Also, spend some time together doing something you both enjoy. Sometimes these moments of togetherness will prompt a teen to share more about their lives.

But whatever you do, don't ignore these red flags and just hope things will improve on your own. When someone is using drugs, especially a teen, this behavior can quickly become an addiction. Plus, teen drug use comes with significant side effects. Drug use not only impacts their cognition and physical health but even could lead to death.

Of course, the effects of drug use vary greatly depending on the type of drug used, how drugs are mixed, and how they are used. But for those who inject drugs, the death rate due to overdose is extremely high. Likewise, there also is a risk of medical complications as well because many teen drug users share needles or use contaminated materials.

How to Address the Issue

If you discover that your teen is using drugs, it's important not to freak out. Take a deep breath and think through how you want to address the issue before confronting your teen.

You want to be calm and have a well-thought-out plan before confronting your teen. Freaking out, yelling, or even crying can cause your teen to put up walls and derail any hope of having a real conversation.

Of course, it's natural to be upset and even cry, but it's best if your first interaction over the drug use is calm, yet serious. You want your teen to know you mean business and that you're not taking this behavior lightly, but you also don't want the focus to be on your emotions. The focus should be on their choices and behaviors.

It's also important not to shame your teen for using drugs. Instead, reinforce how much you love and care for them. Help them see that their drug use, while not appropriate, doesn't define who they are—it's simply an issue that needs to be addressed. And while you may be disappointed, assure them that you still love them and are there to help them make better choices.

You also need to be prepared to have this conversation with your teen many times. Talking to your kids about drugs is not a one-time conversation. Be prepared for them to deny using drugs initially. It's also highly unlikely that they will admit that they have a problem. So, you may have to intervene to get them the help they need.

Likewise, be prepared for your teen to get angry and to lash out. This response is typical of a person who uses drugs and one of the reasons why it's so important for you to remain calm. Taking a firm stand in a calm manner can not only help diffuse the situation, but it can aid you in keeping the conversation on track rather than allowing it to get derailed by intense emotions.

Substance Use/Addiction:

If your teen is struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

If you suspect your teen is using drugs, take a closer look at what's going on their lives. Paying attention to your teen's daily activities and behaviors will give you further clues into what's motivating their behaviors. For instance, some teens use drugs to compensate for low self-esteem, to fit in, or to cope with pain in their lives.

For this reason, it's important to try talking to your teen first if you believe they are doing drugs. Try not to throw out accusations, but instead ask them direct questions about the signs you're seeing.

And, if you run into roadblocks or if you feel like your teen is unmanageable, involve your child's doctor or a mental health professional, especially if you feel overwhelmed or like you're not able to reach your teen. But whatever you do, don't ignore the warning signs. Get your teen the help they need.

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  1. Ali S, Mouton CP, Jabeen S, et al. Early detection of illicit drug use in teenagersInnov Clin Neurosci. 2011;8(12):24-28. PMID:22247815

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