Teen Drug and Alcohol Abuse
Drug Abuse and Denial
If you're like many parents, you want to ignore signs of drug abuse in your teen. After all, this is our child! The adorable toddler, the curious pre-schooler, the pleasant adolescent you remember is still a part of our sons and daughters. We still see those past reflections even as we are horrified at their behavior today.
We wonder if... no. Our child is smarter than that, right? We've taught him better! She understands that partying isn't really the path to happiness!
Many parents stop there. Even though they have that quiet, niggling voice in their heart whispering, "My child's losing control and I feel helpless. I should do something!" The very thought strikes terror in their heart. What can be done? How can a teenager be forced to do what they don't want to?
Just as our teen will deny a problem even when confronted with hard evidence, parents are tempted to deny the problem, too. Drug and alcohol abuse - along with its major symptom of denial - affects the entire family.
Don't worry. Thousands of parents have experienced the anguish and torment that you may be feeling over your child, and there are steps you can take! But be prepared - to help your child, you may find that you need to step outside of your own comfort zone.
My Story (or: How I Know What I'm Talking About)
I'm well-acquainted with drug and alcohol abuse, and I'm here to help you figure out your next steps. I was first affected by chemical abuse as a child. My mother's husband was a binge-drinking alcoholic. If he so much as tasted cooking sherry, it set him off for days. He completely lost control of himself when he binged. He'd sell or pawn all the valuables he could lay his hands on and drink until he couldn't control his bowels. Yes, he literally wiped his rear end with curtains. He'd black out, once ending up in a neighboring state. He called from jail. The police had arrested him, naked, after he'd been robbed of all he had. He was hallucinating about helicopters as he ranted on the phone during his one free call.
Of course, I didn't think about him when I started using. I just craved new experiences, and my friends helped me find those novel moments. Before long, I was smoking marijuana and taking diet pills daily. My parents soon found out. My mother didn't know what to do. Fortunately, my father, despite his many faults, was not so hesitant. He enrolled me in outpatient drug rehab when I was 15 years old. I was the youngest person in the group.
In the years that followed, I steered clear of drugs and alcohol almost completely even though I'd been lucky. I never crossed that invisible line into addiction. However, I still became romantically linked to alcoholics and drug abusers. Two of them were physically abusive, too, and when one of them had a knife pointed at me and I had one pointed at him, I knew it was time for a change.
I joined the Army, where I became a certified drug and alcohol counselor. Although I didn't maintain my certification when I got out of the service, I put much of what I learned to use as a parent.
Physical Signs of Drug Abuse
You are probably very familiar with how your teen normally looks and acts, and may get the feeling that something is just slightly "off." Trust me, your teen knows what changes a particular drug will have, and will have an excuse ready. "Too tired." "Bad day." "Just hyper."
Here are a few possible indications of being high:
- pupil size (pupils get smaller under the influence of depressants, and enlarge with stimulants.)
- Redness or swollen appearance of eyes (marijuana)
- Increased or decreased energy (patterns of ping-ponging between extremes can indicate both use and withdrawal.)
- Lack of sleep or complaints about being unable to sleep.
- Excessive sleepiness
- Numerous sores appearing on skin
- Bruises along veins (from needle pricks)
- Increased sensitivity to temperature, feeling hot when others are comfortable (ecstasy).
- Gritting teeth or grinding jaw
- Damage to teeth or gums
- Noticeable weight changes
- Lack of coordination
- Slurred speech
- Hyper-attentive to menial tasks
- Unusual smells (alcohol, stale perspiration, burnt plastic, chemical-like smells, patchouli oil, heavy perfumes.)
I have not separated these out by drug type because often teens and adult abusers alike often abuse more than just one type of drug. If you see several of these signs when they were not present in the past, it's important to recognize that your teen may be using multiple drugs. Be careful not to assume there's just one.
Behavioral Signs of Drug and Alcohol Abuse
Teens can be tough to read. Even though we've known them their entire lives, their transition from adolescence to adulthood will be filled with perplexing moments that we simply don't understand. As they explore the world around them as aspiring adults, we wonder what's gotten into them, and they don't have to be using anything illicit to keep us off balance!
However, there are behavioral cues that can help you distinguish between normal teen behavior and chemically induced personality changes. This table will help you know what to watch for and what to take in stride:
Let it slide
Excessive phone calls / texting
(Do they ever tire of it?)
If they're secretive about it
Most teens have moodiness
If extreme highs and lows
New friends are common
If old friends fade away
Similar performance as past years
Major shifts (including improvement)
Only misses for approved reasons
Skipping classes regularly
Some decrease is normal.
Sharp drop, manipulative behaviors
Reluctantly, but yes.
Blames others for problems.
Fails to keep word.
Withdrawing to Room
Becomes child's preference.
Borrowing / lending clothes
Unwise, maybe, but not a sign of drug use.
Only rarely lies
Frequent lies, sneaking, scheming
Selfish, may be sullen at times
Frequent bursts of hostility or abusiveness
Posters, song lyrics with drug references
Direct access to or possession of drug-related items
Of all the behaviors mentioned under the "Be Worried" category above, this one warrants special attention. Drug paraphernalia can vary depending on a user's drug of choice. The presence of any type of drug paraphernalia or alcohol in a teen warrants serious concern.
- Alcoholic beverage bottles or cans where they aren't expected (teen's bedroom trash can, for instance).
- Collections of alcoholic beverage containers of a similar type on display in teen's area.
- References to sizzurp or evidence of drinks containing a mixture of cough syrup with fruit juice or soda, with or without Jolly Rancher style candy added.
- Prescription bottles with another person's name on the label.
- Prescription pads (the kind a doctor would use to write a prescription for a patient.)
- Unidentified tablets or pills. You may be able to positively identify them using this helpful tool.
- See the above reference to sizzurp.
- Pipes, bongs, hookahs
- Rolling papers
- Stash boxes or "dugouts" that have small pipes to smoke with and a compartment for the drug
- "Roach clips" - alligator clips or similar objects to hold a rolled cigarette without burning fingers when it gets smaller
- Soda can, slightly dented and with holes in the dented area (can also be used for crack)
- Marijuana plants discovered growing on your property (whether as a potted plant or in the yard, such as next to a house or fence.)
- Jewelry, clothing, artwork, or collectible items that depict marijuana or "420"
- Items advocating legalization of marijuana
- Frequent use of eyedrops without medical reason
- Scales for measuring
- Candles, incense, potpourri, patchouli oil
Ecstasy, MDMA, club drugs:
- glow sticks, lollipops, and black-light items - not for using the drug, but for enhancing the high after taking "XTC"
- Corners - the corner of a sandwich bag is cut off and used for selling or holding meth. These are often closed using twist-ties from bread packages. Also, jeweler-sized reclosable bags.
- Spoons with burn marks, strips of aluminum foil, and damaged light bulbs
- Glass pipes - may be homemade from cigar tubes, light bulbs
- Tin foil - strips may be folded in half, and after use, may be rolled into a ball. The presence of an entire roll of foil in a teen's room is suspicous.
- Multiple lighters - torch-style lighters are popular for meth use too. Candles if the sound of using a lighter repeatedly may be noticed.
- Segments of drinking straws or ink pens (may be cut at an angle)
- Paper clips / Q-tips / ball-point caps / Magic Eraser style cleaning products / razor blades
- Combinations of these items found in tackle box, sunglasses case, or makeup pouch
Note: There are more than 1,400 known inhalants that are common in household products - cleaning supplies, felt tipped markers, aerosols, and petroleum products are just a few that we probably all have around the house. There are two specific signs that can tip you off to inhalant abuse:
- Rash or residue around mouth
- Paper or plastic bags with residue from a chemical agent that may have been used to concentrate the substance so it can be held up to the mouth and nose and inhaled deeply.
- "Snuff kits" typically contain razor blade, glass tube, tiny spoon, a mirror, and a small container for holding the drug.
- Crack cocaine is sold as small rocks and is cheaper than the once-popular powdered cocaine. Users often smoke through a glass pipe that has a smaller bowl than a marijuana pipe.
This list is far from complete. There are as many creative ways to hide stashes (and items sold for the purpose) as there are people using illicit drugs. For this article, I've focused only on categories of drugs most commonly abused by teens.
Facts About Teenage Drug Abuse
It's impossible to emphasize how important it is to take firm, decisive action if you discover (or strongly suspect) that your teen's abusing drugs or alcohol. Although it's tempting to think, "Well, all kids do some of that at this age, the facts don't support it.
One of the most recognized source of statistics on school aged children's drug use comes from the annual Monitoring the Future (MTF) surveys conducted annually as a joint effort of the National Institute on Drugs and the University of Michigan.
In 2012, MTF's latest report stresses that marijuana abuse is high among teens: averaging slightly below 20% of high-schoolers. This means that four out of five high-schoolers used no marijuana in the last year. Seniors smoked the most, at 36.4% of them having used weed in the last year. However, once again this means about six of every ten did not.
About one in three seniors have used alcohol in the last year, followed by marijuana and prescription drugs, MDMA (ecstasy), inhalants, and cocaine.
The survey, which has been conducted each year since the mid-1970s, has proven a very strong correlation: When teens perceive a drug as risky, they avoid it, and when they perceive less risk, their usage is higher.
Best At Home Tests
Actions to Take if you Suspect Drug or Alcohol Abuse
1. If possible, obtain confirmation that your teen is using.
He or she may confess, though most don't unless they believe they can't get away with a lie. Information from others who have seen them using can be helpful, but isn't always reliable. I encourage a simple urine test like the ones shown here. They're affordable, easy to use, and the results are objective - the enzymes they measure either are or are not present in the urine. Your teen's believability, tears, and plausible stories won't sway a quality test strip. The brand shown here is highly accurate but it's important to remove the plastic tab from the dip before use.
2. Emphasize to your teen how important he or she is to you, and how much you love them.
3. Stand firm on a zero-tolerance policy.
4. If you've discovered minimal signs of use and have reason to believe your teen's use will not happen again, I encourage you to have an open and frank discussion with your teen. When you do, establish the consequences that will happen if there is any indication of use again.
5. Conduct infrequent, random checks over the coming two months. (To prevent tampering, I encourage standing in the bathroom at an angle where you aren't invading privacy more than necessary, but are close enough to ensure that your child cannot tamper with the sample by adding eye drops or using substituted urine.)
Drug Addiction Treatment & Intervention
How do you determine if your child is using, abusing, or addicted? The best and simplest answer is to turn over that evaluation to a professional. If you have caught your child using more than once, or your teen has used any "high-risk" drugs like meth or cocaine even once, don't hesitate to get them into treatment.
Drug abuse is notably different than addiction, but without specialized training it can be tricky to make the distinction. Parents are unlikely to get an accurate picture of what's happening if they don't.
Why? There are several reasons:
- Parents want to believe the best about their child and may have subconscious "blinders" that prevent them from acknowledging the full truth.
- Parents may fear the worst and overreact despite their best intentions.
- Teens aren't going to tell the truth to their parents, but a drug counselor is trained to get a much more accurate picture.
There's a saying I became familiar with years ago:
"A man takes a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes the man."
A teenager who is abusing alcohol or drugs runs the risk of crossing over that invisible line into addiction, and nobody can predict where that line will be. Some people are "recreational users" for many years before addiction sinks its claws into them. Others claim they became addicted to their drug of choice (including alcohol in all forms) from the very first time they tried it.
Addiction is an obsessive compulsion that is a lifelong disease. Whether you believe it's a disease or not, it's most definitely a quality of life issue. Addictions get in the way of personal happiness, professional success, and even a person's physical safety.
That means the time to act is now - hopefully before an addiction wends its way into your teen's daily life. A professional evaluation (and treatment as necessary) may require the entire family's participation because it affects the entire family. Scary, but necessary. I've heard many addicts report that although recovery is not easy, it is worthwhile. Your teen is, too.
This book is a poignant true story of how addiction affected the author's family. He will take you on a journey of addiction and recovery as you discover how methamphetamines took over his entire family when his son grew addicted to them, and what it took to recover.
If your teen is using, abusing, or addicted, I sympathize with your family and what you're going through. The sudden changes that provoke arguments and hostilities where you'd rather feel love and affection. The fear and worry about your loved one or "what's next?" The helplessness and anger that make you want to give up sometimes.
I won't tell you that treatment always works. Often, it doesn't. At least not the first time. Maybe not the second, sixth, or sixteenth time.
What I will tell you is that with good treatment, that next high your teen experiences won't provide the rewards that it used to. And eventually, when the rewards are too few and the cost of using feels too high, addicts begin a sincere journey to recovery.
I wish your family a speedy path to that new beginning.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
I found a pen casing with a paperclip sticking out of the end of it in my son's room. What could this be?
Hmm, not sure. Could be something he uses for cleaning a pipe. Some inmates use a pen casing with a paper clip to make syringes of sorts. Possibly also part of a tattoo gun. There could also be a dozen other possibilities that are not related to drugs at all. Do you see other signs of drug use?Helpful 2