Teen Drug Use Warning Signs

Parents Need to Know the Signs of Teen Drug Use

Teenager (16-18) smoking hand rolled cigarette

Barbara Peacock / The Image Bank / Getty Images

Unfortunately, there are a plethora of different drugs available to today's teens, from marijuana and MDMA to opioids and prescription medications. Consequently, identifying the signs of drug use is a little more complicated than just looking for physical signs like "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. Research shows that marijuana is the most common drug used by kids 14 and older. Kids who start using drugs between ages 15 and 17 are most likely to begin with alcohol.

As a result, it is important for parents or caregivers 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 lookout for when it comes to teen drug use.

Signs in the Home

It's never easy to learn that your teen is using drugs, but it is 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.

If your child teen suddenly loses interest in family activities, disrespects family members and family rules, withdraws from responsibilities, or spends a lot of time in their room, these could be warning signs of an issue.

Likewise, breaking curfew or sneaking out of the house, refusing to tell you where they are going, giving excuses for bad behavior, or lying about activities or where they are going, warrants investigation. Even if their poor behavior is not related to drugs, it is an indicator that there is a problem.

Extreme changes like abusing others emotionally, verbally, or physically, displaying a sudden increase or decrease in appetite, or frequently losing valuable items or money can also be warning signs of drug use. And kids who are using drugs also may have drug-related items in their pockets, backpacks, or their room.

While some of these items might include more obvious drug-related items like cigarette rolling papers, small glass vials, plastic baggies, seeds, and powders, also be on the lookout for things that may not look like they could be used for drugs like strange pens or devices that resemble USB flash drives. Vape pens, for instance, do not look at all like drug paraphernalia.

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 could also be signs of drug use.

Signs at School

Almost always, changes in school performance indicate there is some type of 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, you should investigate.

Some common school-related issues include experiencing a sudden drop in grades, being truant from or late to school, losing interest in learning, displaying poor work performance, and refusing or forgetting to complete homework. They also may have a poor attitude toward sports or other activities they used to enjoy or even struggle to remember things.

Kids using drugs also can display more extreme school-related issues as well. For instance, if you get reports they are sleeping in class, defying authority, breaking rules, or skipping class, you should investigate. Even failing to inform you of teacher meetings, open houses, and other important school activities could be a sign they are trying to hide something.

Physical and Emotional Signs

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

Other common signs include mood swings and erratic behavior as well as being negative, argumentative, paranoid, confused, destructive, or anxious. Kids who are using drugs also tend to overreact to criticism, act rebellious, have poor hygiene, and share few if any details about their personal life.

They also may appear overly tired or hyperactive, experience a drastic change in weight, and appear unhappy, depressed, or anxious. In extreme cases, they will need money all the time (or has excessive amounts of money) or may cheat, steal, or engage in other criminal activities.

Why You Should Pay Attention

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

Certainly, not every warning sign on these lists indicates a teen is doing drugs, but teens who do use drugs do many of the 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 likely 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 are doing, where they are going, and who they are 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 their own. When someone is using drugs, especially a teen, this behavior can quickly become an addiction. Plus, teen drug use comes with significant dangers. Drug use not only impacts their cognitive development and physical health, but it can also be fatal.

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 teens who inject drugs, the death rate due to overdose is extremely high. There is also a risk of medical complications because teen drug users are more likely to share needles or use contaminated materials.

How to Address the Issue

If you discover that your teen is using drugs, try not to remain calm. 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. Yelling, getting angry, or even crying can cause your teen to put up walls and derail any hope of having a real conversation.

Of course, it is natural to be upset and even cry, but it is 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 are not taking this behavior lightly, but you also do not want the focus to be on your emotions. The focus should be on their choices and behaviors.

Do not shame your teen for using drugs. Instead, reinforce how much you love and care for them. Help them see that their drug use, while inappropriate, does not define who they are—it is 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. You may have to intervene to get them the help they need.

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

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.

A Word From Verywell

If you suspect your teen is using drugs, take a closer look at what is going on in their life. Paying attention to your teen's daily activities and behaviors will give you further clues into what is 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 is 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 are seeing.

And, if you run into roadblocks, you feel overwhelmed, or you feel like you are not able to reach your teen, consider involving a healthcare provider or a mental health professional. Whatever you do, do not ignore the warning signs. Get your teen the help they need.

7 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Family checkup.

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By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.