Dear Your Teen:
This summer, my teenager has been going out a lot. She seems to have changed, though my husband and I can’t say how exactly. Could she be experimenting with drugs and alcohol? What signs should we look for?
Your teen has been acting differently lately; you are worried but can’t figure out what’s going on. There are several warning signs to look for if you are worried that your son or daughter might be using drugs or alcohol.
Signs they’re using drugs or alcohol
Remember that one sign does not absolutely confirm use, but it’s important to remain on the lookout.
Changes in appearance and behavior
There may be subtle or stark changes in your teen’s appearance and behavior as a result of using drugs and alcohol. It may be easier to notice when he/she is under the influence, because there are several changes in appearance and behavior, such as: bloodshot eyes (may use eye drops to try and mask this), larger/smaller pupils, slurred speech, impaired coordination, smell of drugs/alcohol on breath or clothing (may use air freshener or incense to cover odors). However, it is sometimes harder to notice the other changes, which persist even when he/she is not under the influence, including: changes in appetite or sleep patterns, sudden weight loss or gain, tremors, smell of drugs/alcohol on clothing or other belongings. Of course, finding drug or alcohol related items is another red flag (such as rolling papers, pipes, small plastic baggies or vials, short straws, bottle caps, or remnants of drugs).
Changes in relationships and responsibilities
Any drastic change in relationships or responsibilities may be a sign of teenage drug or alcohol use. Some examples of “drastic changes” would be if your teen begins spending time with an entirely new peer group, begins getting into trouble or disregarding rules (either at school, in the neighborhood, or any legal issues), or begins failing or skipping classes. Another red flag would be secretive or suspicious behavior; for example, suddenly demanding more privacy or locks on bedroom door, lying about his/her whereabouts, unexplained need for money, or sneaking out of home or school. Some teens develop “code” for drugs and alcohol terminology, so that it can not be detected by parents during phone or text conversations. While many teens rebel against curfews, teenagers who are using drugs or alcohol may disregard curfew and create hard to believe or weak cover stories. They may choose to stay home from family outings, holidays, weekend trips to spend unsupervised time with friends. Of course, be wary of money, expensive items, or prescriptions missing from the home.
Changes in mood and motivation
The psychological changes that result from drug or alcohol use may be less apparent than the above changes, but are still very important to watch for. Drug and alcohol use could result in otherwise unexplained changes in personality or outlook. For example, your teenager may have been relatively even tempered, but suddenly begins having angry outbursts, mood swings, or engaging in violent behavior. At the other end of the continuum, drug and alcohol use could result in sudden loss of interest in activities/hobbies and drastic decline in energy and motivation. For example, your teenager was an active athlete and thriving student, who suddenly becomes lethargic and looses motivation in both school and sports.
How you can help
- Don’t wait until it has become a problem to have a conversation with your son or daughter about substance use. Ask about the level of drugs and alcohol that is being used at parties, free periods, before/after school. And if the answer is “yes, some kids I know do that stuff” or something along those lines, don’t freak out! Have a discussion (not a lecture) about drugs, alcohol, and the potential dangers. Try to make this discussion collaborative by asking how they have handled it in the past and how they can continue to make responsible choices.
- Monitor your teen’s activity, and this means every day (not just on the weekends). It is important to know where they are and who they are with. Some parents also choose to search the home for drugs and alcohol, other parents choose to lock up prescription pills and liquor that is in the home.
- Establish appropriate rules and consequences for drugs and alcohol use. Consult with your spouse or partner about what appropriate rules and consequences would be, and make sure that you both feel comfortable enforcing them. When you set a limit, it is crucially important that you send a consistent message from both parents and follow through so that your teenager knows you mean business.
- Get professional help if needed. If your teenager continues to use drugs and alcohol, call a psychologist or social worker. It is important to reach out to a mental health clinician who specializes in substance use treatment.
- Encourage your teen! Sports, reading, volunteer work, after school job, or other constructive hobbies will occupy their time outside of school. When teens are busy with fun and rewarding activities, they are less likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol.
Meredith Bonacci, PhD, is a licensed psychologist practicing in New York City who specializes in adolescents and young adults. Get in touch with Dr. Bonacci at rennickeassociates.com.