Signs That Your Teen May Be Abusing Alcohol or Other Drugs

Differentiating between actions that are associated with “just being a teen” and evidence of
unhealthy and illegal activities can be one of the most demanding aspects of parenting an
adolescent. The following are five of the most common signs that should prompt you to take a
closer look at the lifestyle your child is leading:

  • Significant mood swings - Children often display moods, attitudes, and patterns of personality.
    Just as no one personality is the “right” one for a child to have, neither is one particular behavior
    a sure sign that there’s a problem. However, dramatic mood swings or significant changes in
    personality may be cause for concern. For example, a parent should be concerned if a teen who
    is normally outgoing and social suddenly becomes secretive and isolated.

    Parents should always be concerned about violent mood swings. These could indicate an
    underlying psychiatric issue or substance abuse.

  • Problems at school - Just as one bad mood doesn’t necessarily indicate that your child is
    abusing alcohol or drugs, failing one math test doesn’t indicate a serious problem. However, a
    drop in performance (A student becomes a C student), repeated refusals to go to school because
    they are “sick,” or a sudden series of phone calls from teachers or school officials indicate a

    The cause could be a school phobia, a social disorder, or an unresolved interpersonal conflict, or
    your child’s poor academic performance could be a sign of drug or alcohol abuse. Whatever the
    reason, a sudden decline in your child’s school work demands immediate investigation and

  • Poor hygiene and neglect of personal appearance - Teens seem to take satisfaction in
    fashions that irritate their parents, but there is a distinct difference between strange fashions and
    the neglect of one’s appearance. As with your child’s personality and school performance,
    evaluate her appearance and hygiene in the context of her previous behavior patterns.
    Deteriorating outside appearances often reflect deteriorating self-esteem.

    If your child suddenly makes a dramatic change in how they dress and present themselves this
    can indicate they have fallen in with a new peer group. When a teen suddenly changes the type
    of peers they associate with, parents need to be alert and watch for other dramatic changes in
    behavior. The cause may not necessarily be drugs or alcohol, but you won’t know that until you
    increase your involvement in your child’s life.

  • Furtive friendships and other secretive behaviors - Teens can be quite protective of their
    personal space and their privacy, especially when they get old enough to date and start having
    feelings that they might feel uncomfortable sharing with their parents. However, if this need for
    privacy becomes more like a strategy to make sure you don’t know what they’re doing or who
    they’re doing it with, there might be more to it than a desire for some alone time.

    If your teen is hyper-secretive or evasive about the names of new friends or their social
    activities it could indicate they are doing things you would not approve of.

    Searching your child’s room or checking up on them might not make you popular with your
    teen, but your job is to be a parent not a best friend.

  • If you are reasonably suspicious, trust your instincts and take the steps you need to (and
    have a right to take) in order to intervene. If your teen hides where he goes – lies about
    where he or she has been – this is another bad sign. Teens who are not doing anything they
    shouldn’t rarely worry about telling the truth about where they are going or where they
    have been. Where there is smoke, there’s fire.

  • Depression, forgetfulness, irritability, or poor sleep habits - Scientists are still trying to
    understand fully how alcohol and other drugs interact with teen brains. However, because teen
    brains and bodies are still developing, the impact of alcohol abuse can be particularly
    devastating.. If your teen seems to be becoming more forgetful and less alert, or if she alternates
    periods of jumpiness or irritability with extended sessions of lethargy and sleepiness, then you
    may be seeing the signs of substance use or withdrawal.

    Experts advise, “If your teen seems to be on the verge of premature senility, look closer at the
    problem. Be particularly concerned if the child’s energy seems very low – eyes are glassy or
    they seem ‘out of it.’ Marijuana in particular impacts short-term memory.”

Even though you are not likely to be an expert on substance abuse, you are the best expert on your
child. You’ve watched them grow and developing physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
You are the person in the best position to determine if something is just not right with your teen.

If you have been avoiding confrontation or putting your head in the sand, the problem will likely
continue to grow and your teen may try riskier and more dangerous behaviors. As with almost every
aspect of parenting a teenager, awareness and vigilance are crucial components of the effort to keep
your child away from drugs and alcohol. A world of experts and a wealth of resources are available
to help you with this challenge, but your vigilance and interaction with your child may be the most
important factors of all.