Tips for Raising Drug-Free Kids – Warning Signs and What to Do If Your Child Is Using

In our five-part series about preventing your child from abusing drugs, we covered elementary school, middle school, high school and beyond high school as parts one through four. Part five of our tips for raising drug-free kids series provides you with information on the warning signs that may indicate your child is taking drugs and what to do if your child is using.

As you might know, it can be difficult to figure out if your child is drinking alcohol or using drugs. Many parents find it a challenge to determine the difference between what’s typical “growing up” behavior or an indication of a bigger problem. Often, the signs of teenage drug abuse are typical behavior of teens and young adults. In other cases, you’ll see a new onset of moodiness, isolation, change in friends, or disinterest in activities they once loved.

As a parent, you know that the job of raising drug-free kids isn’t easy, considering how widespread underage substance abuse is. For instance, did you know that over 15 percent of 12th-graders misuse narcotics, amphetamines, tranquilizers or sedatives? Around 5,000 young adults who are under 21 years old die each year because of underage drinking.

young adults and underage drinking

You may be able to relate to this story. A young teenager who once was happy, agreeable and a hard-working student suddenly turns defiant and disrespectful.

They’re uncommunicative and sit in their bedroom for hours. When they’re not in their room, they’re outside of the house and don’t want to tell you where they’re going. They’re red-eyed and sleepy when they finally get home. They’re reluctant to give you any information. They don’t hang out with their old friends anymore, and you’re worried that the new friends they associate with are not a great influence.

You’ve attempted to talk with your teen, but nothing seems to get through to them. They’ve lost privileges and had things important to them taken away. You might have even had to have some difficult conversations with the school or local authorities. But it didn’t help. Nothing seems to get through to your teen. You’re worried about what they’re putting into their body. It’s understandable that you want to do everything you possibly can to help them and that you might be scared about their future.

Take a step back and look at the whole picture. Chances are, like many parents, you’re likely observing the symptoms rather than the deeper issues like peer pressure, family dynamics, emotions or addiction. You’ll be able to come up with ways to help your teen once you understand the bigger picture of what’s going on.

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How to Recognize The Early Signs of Drug Abuse

For many parents, no matter how much effort they put into talking with their kids about drugs and alcohol, they still experiment with them. In some cases, this experimentation results in addiction. Because of this, it’s important that you learn to recognize the signs of childhood drug abuse.

recognize the warning signs of drug abuse

So, what do you do when you suspect your teen is using drugs? First, you need to determine whether the symptoms and signs you’re seeing are a sign of drug use or typical teenage behavior. Chances are, if your teen is using drugs, they may display one or more of the following signs.

Neglecting Responsibilities

It could be a sign that your child has begun to delve into substance abuse if your teen has always been dependable and responsible and there’s a sudden change in this behavior. You may see them neglecting responsibilities, and they may become more irresponsible as time goes on.

Abandoning Activities They Used to Enjoy

Your teen may stop showing interest in activities they once found enjoyable. For instance, they participate less in social activities or sporting events, or they begin missing school. They don’t attend family gatherings or functions anymore.

Drop in School Attendance or Performance

School becomes insignificant to your teen and leads to things like:

  • Complaints from supervisors or teachers
  • Loss of interest in school or absenteeism
  • Failure to fulfill school responsibilities
  • Notifications that they’re intoxicated at school
  • Bad grades and exhibiting poor performance

Stealing or Borrowing Money for Unexplained Reasons

If abusing drugs, your teen may start to ask you for money and not provide you with a reason. Usually, individuals who abuse drugs will ask for small amounts of money over a period instead of one large sum. They may keep their spending habits a secret. For instance, they might tell you they need some extra pocket change for something they don’t need.

borrowing money without a reason

Engaging in Secretive Behavior

Look for secretiveness or deceit. Is your teen being vague about their plans and where they’re going? Can they provide you with a parent’s phone number for the party they’re going to? Do they come home from this party acting intoxicated? Do they give you endless excuses as to why they’re home past curfew? These are all indications of possible secretive behavior.

Changes in Friends

Teens that are using drugs often change who their friends are or the places where they hang out. For instance, your teen may start hanging out with different friends saying their old friends aren’t cool anymore. They may lie about where they hang out and start breaking curfew. Teen drug users find they have problems socializing with those who aren’t using drugs.

More Frequently Getting Into Trouble

Teens that are using drugs may begin having problems, such as being tardy or absent more often in school. They may start getting into trouble with law officials. They get into trouble for misbehaving and struggle to learn as fast as other students.

Personality or Attitude Changes

Because a teenager’s attitude and personality may change on a regular basis anyway, this one can be a bit tricky. But, this may look a bit different if your teen is abusing drugs. Their mood swings may fluctuate from extreme happiness or hyperactivity followed by a drop in their mood where they’re acting the complete opposite. They may be irritable and lethargic. Their behavior and thinking may become unpredictable and irrational.

unpredictable behavior

Mood Swings or Angry Outbursts

Because unpredictable behavior and mood swings occur regularly in teenagers, you may have a difficult time determining if they’re showing signs of drug abuse. However, if your teen begins showing some of the following signs, it may indicate drug use:

  • Depressed, careless about hygiene, withdrawn or tired
  • Deterioration of family member relationships
  • Uncooperative and hostile
  • Breaking curfews frequently
  • Lost interest in sports, hobbies or other favorite activities
  • Evidence of a new group of friends
  • Trouble with concentrating
  • Irregular attendance at school and/or grades are slipping
  • Disappearing money in the house
  • A runny nose in the absence of a cold
  • Red eyes in the absence of a cold
  • Changed sleeping or eating patterns; sleeps during the day and up all night

Unusual Periods of Hyperactivity

A lot of teens will use depressants, like alcohol, to calm anxiety or their hyperactive brain. However, this only provides temporary relief. If they continue doing this, they could become dependent on the alcohol to help them feel “normal” — and this can quickly lead to addiction.

If your teens suffer from ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), they may display hyperactive behavior that gets them in trouble at home and school. Since they can’t control this behavior, it can lead to mental stress that may cause depression and anxiety, causing them to turn to self-medication with alcohol or drugs.

Lack of Motivation

They don’t care about school, how they look or how their room looks. They show no interest in things they once enjoyed. You may see them sitting on the couch watching television or sitting at their computer the majority of the time. While a lack of motivation may not always be a sign that they’re using drugs, it could be.

Appearing Fearful or Anxious

Your teen seems anxious, fearful, paranoid or withdrawn for no apparent reason.

Less Concern About Personal Appearance or Hygiene

your teen might not care about personal appearance

Normally, teens are concerned with how they look to friends and peers. They’re very particular about makeup, clothing and overall hygiene. However, teens that are using drugs often focus less on what they look like and more on their substance use.

Sudden Weight Loss or Gain

Changes in weight is another normal part of a teenager’s life. But rapid fluctuations and sudden changes could indicate drug abuse or addiction. Your teen may neglect to eat because of alcohol or drugs, or they may spend their lunch money on buying drugs instead of eating.

Bloodshot Eyes and Flushed Skin

Take a close look at your child’s eyes when they return home from being out with friends. If their eyes are heavy-lidded, red and they have constricted pupils, this could mean they’ve been using marijuana or another drug (depending on the drug). In addition, they may have flushed, red color to their cheeks and face if they’ve been drinking.

Change in Appetite or Sleep Patterns

There may be an increase or decrease in either appetite or sleep patterns or both. For instance, if your child is using amphetamines, they may show a decreased need for food and sleep. With marijuana, their appetite will likely increase, and they may sleep more. To find out more information on the effects of specific drugs, you can:

  • Call your local alcohol and drug commission
  • Call your mental health clinic

Each drug has its own unique effects, so it helps to be as educated as you can, so you can look out for the signs.

each drug has unique effects

Slurred Speech or Impaired Coordination

Looking at your teen, if they look like they’re high, chances are they are. Prescription drug intoxication signs include drowsiness, pinpoint pupils and slurred speech. If they’ve been drinking alcohol, they will likely have trouble focusing. There will be slurred speech with alcohol consumption as well.

A lot of teens will use depressants, like alcohol, to calm anxiety or their hyperactive brain. However, this only provides temporary relief. If they continue doing this, they could become dependent on the alcohol to help them feel “normal” — and this can lead to addiction quickly.

If your teens suffer from ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), they may display hyperactive behavior that gets them in trouble at home and at school. Since they can’t control this behavior it can lead to mental stress that may cause depression and anxiety, causing them to turn to self-medication with alcohol or drugs.

If You Suspect Your Child Is Using Drugs

If you suspect that your child is struggling with alcoholism or addicted to drugs, the best thing you can do is assure them that you care about them and are there to help them. However, be sure that you’re supporting your child, rather than enabling them. Supporting instead of enabling doesn’t come naturally to everyone, but to help your child, you must take an approach that’s healthy for both of you.

If you haven’t caught your child doing drugs and only suspect it, get involved in their life as much as possible to keep them away from situations where they’ll be tempted to use drugs. Start by:

  • Asking them what’s been happening inside and outside of school
  • Discussing how to avoid alcohol and drugs
  • Enlisting the help of your teen’s physician, school guidance counselor or a local drug assessment and treatment referral center (there’s a better chance your child will open up to them)
  • Exploring what’s happening in your teen’s social and emotional life that could cause them to turn to drugs

make time to talk to your teen

Make time to talk about the problem with your teen openly. Just knowing they can come to you to talk without worrying about you turning them away or getting mad will help them stay honest in the future. This shows your teen you love them and that their well-being is important to you.

If You Find Out They Have Been Using Drugs

If you catch your teen in the act or learn they are using drugs, resist the urge to get angry and yell at them. Instead, listen to your teen. Be prepared, though, because they might not be open to talking. If that’s the case, have a list of questions you’d like to ask them about their behaviors.

if you catch your teen

Ask who they’ve been hanging out with, why they’ve been late and where they’ve been. Find out when they began using drugs, if anyone is pressuring them and where or how they’re getting the alcohol or drugs.

Chances are they will not want to give you this information. Inform them that you’re not looking to lecture them, but rather get the facts of their situation so you can help them better. Your overall goal with these types of questions is to inspire your teen to open up and do most of the talking.

But, you’ll also want to show you love them by standing your ground and enforcing the consequences you already established for disobeying house rules. In addition to these consequences, go over ways they can regain your trust, such as improving grades, checking in with you when they’re out and spending nights at home.

Remain Calm

Upon catching your child drinking alcohol or doing drugs, don’t react immediately. As mentioned, you may want to get angry and yell at your teen. But, a reaction like this won’t have much of an impact on your teen or any behaviors moving forward. In fact, screaming and yelling may even promote more negative behavior.

In this moment, the best thing you can do is remain calm. Being able to stay calm in this situation might take some preparation. Let your child know you need to take some time to gather your thoughts and discuss the situation with your spouse or just take the time to regain your composure before you decide what you’re going to do next. But, let them know you’ll be discussing their drug use later on.

Get the Facts

Before fully assessing the situation, you’ll need to get additional information about your child’s alcohol or drug use. They may not give you all the facts right away, and it may take some time before you get the whole truth out of them. This usually isn’t because they want to lie to you but rather because they’re anticipating how you’re going to react.

children don't want to disappoint their parents

Children typically don’t want to disappoint their parents, and they may be concerned about letting you down. Once you begin talking with them, stress to them how important honesty is and offer them the opportunity to open up to you and tell you the truth without immediate repercussions or judgment.

Be prepared. Your child may have a whole slew of excuses like:

  • They were holding it for someone else
  • Their friends are all doing it
  • They only took a small sip and didn’t know it was alcohol
  • They’re only drinking alcohol and not doing drugs
  • They’re only smoking marijuana and not doing hard drugs
  • They only tried it once and won’t ever do it again
  • Someone pressured them into doing it
  • They’re just tired
  • Their eyes are bothering them due to allergies

No matter what excuse they come up with, don’t let it go. Their excuses are just a way to avoid the repercussions of their actions. If you’ve thoroughly researched the topic of drugs, you’ll know the damaging impact it can have on teens. Teens are more susceptible to addiction, and if you don’t intervene immediately, their drug use can get worse leading them on a downward slope.

Many teenagers these days have already tried alcohol or drugs before they graduate from high school. Because of this, some parents may see this risky behavior as another phase of adolescence or assume that it’s normal behavior for their kid’s age. Part of you may even think this way, and you’ll simply talk to your teen, accept the situation and then move on. By doing this, however, you’re missing a huge part of the bigger picture.

While you might have caught your teen drinking a couple of times or smoking once and made them deal with the consequences respectively, you might not understand the whole scope of them using drugs or alcohol. Using drugs or drinking alcohol only once can still indicate a developing habit that could affect your teen’s physical and mental health. You shouldn’t ignore your teen has used drugs, especially since teens are prone to addiction.

Whether it’s uncovering facts about your teen’s drug use, monitoring their behavior or asking them directly about their drug use, it’s important that you find out if they are struggling with addiction. And, if they don’t use regularly or show drug addiction signs and symptoms, there’s still the chance they’ll develop them down the road.

Actions Steps to Take If Your Child Is Using Drugs

don't ignore the situation

So, what should you do if you think your child is abusing drugs or find out that they are?

  • Talk with them using a non-accusing tone
  • Let them know you don’t approve of their drug abuse
  • Ensure they know you still love them and come up with a plan to help them
  • Get help through an intervention if you have to
  • Reach out to drug support communities, like Alateen, for help

Regardless of what you specific actions you take, don’t ignore the situation and always be there for your teen no matter what. This could be the difference between your teen being able to live a healthy, fulfilling life or one that is swallowed up by addiction.

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