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  • Adolescents start using drugs for a variety of reasons. For example, they may want to impress peers, boost energy, ease stress, or self-medicate mental health conditions like social anxiety disorder, depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. 

    Over time, drug use can cause serious health problems, including addiction. As a parent, you can protect your child’s health by learning the signs of substance abuse

    Understanding Substance Abuse & Addiction Among Young People

    Substance abuse occurs when someone uses a substance in a way that threatens their health. Commonly abused substances among young people include:

    Continued substance abuse can lead to addiction. Also called substance use disorder, addiction is a serious disease that makes you feel unable to control your drug use. 

    The most common symptoms of addiction are tolerance and physical dependence. Tolerance means you need increasingly higher doses of the substance to feel the desired effects. Physical dependence means your body relies on the substance to function normally. 

    If you stop using it, you may experience withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, sweating, or seizures. 

    Signs Your Child Has A Substance Abuse Issue

    If your child has a substance abuse issue, you may notice emotional, social, and physical signs. These signs don’t always mean your child is abusing drugs. However, they may indicate that you and your child should discuss the subject. 

    Emotional Signs

    Drugs can affect your child’s emotions and personality. For instance, you may notice a sudden change in their energy level. Some drugs, such as stimulants, can make your child hyperactive and talkative, while other drugs, such as marijuana, can make your child lethargic and quiet. 

    Other emotional signs of substance abuse include:

    • mood swings
    • irritability
    • aggression
    • anxiety
    • paranoia
    • defensiveness
    • depression
    • loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
    • lack of motivation
    • trouble concentrating
    • poor memory

    Social Signs

    If your child abuses drugs, you might see changes in their social, academic, and work life, such as:

    • avoidance of friends and family
    • change in friends
    • reluctance to introduce you to new friends
    • missing school and/or work
    • poor grades
    • stealing or frequently borrowing money
    • locking doors
    • avoiding eye contact
    • making secretive phone calls
    • frequently breaking curfew
    • getting in trouble with the law

    Your child may also use drug-related slang. Common slang terms include:

    If you strongly suspect your child is abusing drugs, you may want to look for these terms in their phones or other digital devices. 

    Physical Signs

    Substance abuse can take a serious toll on your child’s appearance and physical health. You might notice:

    • bloodshot eyes
    • change in pupil size
    • poor hygiene
    • unusual smells on their breath, body, or clothes
    • change in sleeping and/or eating habits
    • extreme weight loss or gain 
    • lack of coordination
    • slurred, erratic, or incoherent speech
    • frequent skin flushing 
    • brittle hair and/or nails
    • shaking
    • seizures
    • frequent sickness, as many drugs weaken the immune system 
    • frequent runny nose and/or nosebleeds (a potential sign of snorting drugs)
    • unexplained bruises and marks (a potential sign of injecting drugs)
    • burns on lips or fingers (a potential sign of smoking drugs)
    • breathing problems (a potential sign of smoking or inhaling drugs)
    • severe dental problems (a potential sign of methamphetamine use)
    • wearing long sleeves or pants in warm weather to hide drug-related injuries

    Drug Paraphernalia

    You may also find drug paraphernalia, which are items used for making, consuming, or hiding drugs. Examples include:

    • lighters, matches, candles, pipes, cigars, rolling papers, electronic cigarettes, bongs, and tinfoil for smoking drugs
    • razor blades, mirrors, straws, tubes, hollowed-out pens, rolled-up papers, and rolled-up bills for snorting drugs
    • syringes, needles, cotton balls, and makeshift armbands (made with materials like string, shoelaces, or neckties) for injecting drugs
    • spoons or bottle caps for melting powder drugs into injectable liquids
    • aerosol cans, balloons, and rags for inhaling drugs
    • mouthwash, breath sprays, mints, and gum for hiding drug smells 
    • sunglasses and eye drops for hiding bloodshot eyes or changes in pupil size

    Many young people hide these items. If you’re convinced your child is abusing drugs, consider examining their room or car for hidden paraphernalia.

    Common hiding spots include:

    • inside drawers
    • inside wrappers, cans, pill bottles, makeup bags, or any other containers
    • under beds or mattresses
    • inside or behind books
    • inside hats, shoes, or belt buckles
    • inside holes in mattresses, pillows, or plush toys
    • behind pictures or posters
    • under loose floorboards
    • inside vents or outlets
    • behind toilet tanks
    • inside hollowed-out pens, markers, or highlighters
    • inside trunks or glove compartments
    • under or between car seats

    How To Talk To Your Child About Substance Abuse

    If you notice the above signs, talk to your child. Calmly ask if they’ve been using drugs, what types of drugs they’ve been using, and why they started using. 

    Your child may deny any drug use. If evidence suggests otherwise, consider scheduling a substance use screening. 

    If your child has been abusing drugs, try to remain calm. Remember that substance abuse often stems from mental pain. It can also quickly turn into addiction, which is a disease and not a moral failing. Instead of getting angry, get help. 

    How To Help Your Child Recover From Substance Abuse

    Whether your child is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, they’ll need to attend a treatment program. For help finding a program, contact your child’s doctor, your child’s school, your county health department, or your health insurance company.  

    As stated above, many people abuse drugs to cope with mental health problems. If that’s the case for your child, look for a dual diagnosis treatment program. These programs offer treatment for other mental health problems alongside substance abuse. 

    When your child enters a treatment program, a team of behavioral health professionals will evaluate their situation and help you determine whether they need inpatient or outpatient care. They can then design a personalized treatment plan that includes services such as:

    • medical detox
    • individual therapy
    • family therapy
    • support groups
    • education on substance abuse and other mental health concerns
    • wellness activities like exercise, meditation or prayer, and journaling

    To learn more about substance abuse treatment options for your child, please reach out to an Ark Behavioral Health Specialist today. 

    Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
    ©2023 Ark National Holdings, LLC. | All Rights Reserved.
    This page does not provide medical advice.

    National Institute on Drug Abuse - How To Recognize a Substance Use Disorder
    Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration - How To Tell If Your Child Is Drinking Alcohol
    U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration - How to Identify Drug Paraphernalia
    U.S. National Library of Medicine - Early Detection of Illicit Drug Use in Teenagers

    Medically Reviewed by
    Kimberly Langdon M.D.
    on May 25, 2022
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