Anyone can become addicted to drugs at any age. During adolescence however, you want to address the issue at the first signs of a problem. That way patterns of behavior are stopped in their tracks. This gives the child a shot at long-term recovery and a chance to save his or her life.

Signs That An Adolescent May Be Using Drugs

Many normal behaviors during the period of adolescence mimic drug use. This makes it especially hard for loved ones to recognize the destructive patterns that may be developing. If your child experiences a negative change in mood or behavior, such as acting hostile or withdrawn or feeling tired or depressed all the time, this can be a sign that he or she may be developing a problem related to drugs. These signs are often missed or overlooked, as parents attribute them as a normal part of growing up. However, if these signs are coupled with any of the following, then it may be a cause for concern:

  • S/he starts hanging out with different friends.
  • S/he neglects his or her appearance
  • S/he begins to get bad grades or skips classes.
  • S/he gets in trouble with school and the law.
  • There is a noticeable deterioration in his or her relationships with friends and family members.
  • Missing money or valuables or more frequent requests for money
  • Use of air freshener to mask odors
  • Frequent use of eye drops to reduce eye redness and eye dilation
  • Bloodshot eyes or pupils smaller than usual
  • Unexplainable unusual nosebleeds (could indicate use of cocaine or methamphetamine)
  • Seizures (with no history of epilepsy)
  • Injuries, accidents or bruises that they cannot remember or won’t tell you the cause of
  • Usual smell on clothing, body or breath
  • Impaired or unstable coordination
  • Slurred or incoherent speech
  • Shakes or body tremors

Early intervention is the key to successful treatment. If you notice any of these signs of potential addiction, then the next step is to assist your child in seeking help.

Seeking Help For Your Teen

The first step in seeking help with your teen’s potential drug use is to consult with a professional. You can bring your child to his or her doctor so that they can be screened for signs of drug use and for health conditions related to using drugs. You may want to check with your doctor in advance to ensure that they are comfortable conducting a test, or if they may be able to refer you to a doctor who specializes in this area.

You may want to call an addiction specialist directly. In the U.S. alone, 3,500 board-certified physicians are specialized in drug addiction. You can find a doctor by clicking on the “Find a Physician” link on the homepage of the website for the American Society of Addiction Medicine. You can also use the “Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist Finder” on the website for the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. In both cases, you and the doctor can decide on whether your child should be referred to treatment.

In addition to asking your child a series of questions to evaluate whether he or she may have a drug-related issue, the doctor may also conduct blood and urine test to check for the presence of substances. If any drugs are present, this will help the doctor realize the extent of the child’s addiction and can begin to treat him or her accordingly.

At first, you may be apprehensive about seeking treatment for your child during the school year. After all, treatment can impact all sorts of milestones that can come up over the course of an academic year, from scholarly pursuits to athletic tournaments. But then, so can drugs.

Treatment will help your child regain control over his or her life by stopping the effects that addiction can have on their bodies, their brains, and their behavior. Perhaps most important, you want to be confident in your child’s health before he or she graduates and heads out into the world, where drugs are more accessible and where you may be hindered from helping your child get the treatment he or she needs.

Adolescents And Intervention

You may have seen a drug intervention on television where friends and family essentially gang up on their loved one, giving him or her a hard dose of reality by forcing the person to admit he or she has a drug problem and will agree to seek treatment for it. However, there is no evidence to prove that such a confrontation is effective at convincing someone to enter treatment. In fact, confrontations like these can backfire, leading to violence or other negative and unexpected results.

Most adolescents will only enter treatment when they are forced to go, such as when their parents bring them or when they get in trouble with the law and the justice system steps in. It is therefore important that parents focus on giving the child an incentive to consult with a doctor. It is not advisable for family members attempt to intervene. Children are more likely to listen to a doctor who has been trained in the subject and is not emotionally involved.

If drug use is confirmed, your child may have many fears and concerns about treatment. You can reassure your child that, should he or she need to go through detox, the treatment center will keep him or her as safe and as comfortable as they possibly can. Reaffirm the fact that the child’s family and loved ones will be there to offer love and support as he or she goes through what can be a harrowing ordeal, but that will be more than beneficial to them in the long run.

Drugs As Treatment

Adults who are suffering from an addiction to alcohol, nicotine, and opioids, including heroin, are typically prescribed certain non-habit-forming medications to help wean them off of their addictions by reducing the effects of withdrawal. These same medications may also be prescribed to teens and young adults, just in smaller amounts. Medication is typically used in conjunction with behavioral therapy. For instance, medication may be prescribed to treat the depression that fueled your child’s desire to seek out illicit substances.

Your treatment provider will know best which medications to use, if any, and when, depending on your child’s specific needs. Some treatment centers do not believe in fighting drug addiction with more drugs, but research shows that in many cases, medication can work by boosting therapeutic efforts.

Don’t Blame Yourself

You may want to blame yourself for your child turning to drugs, but ultimately it is your child’s decision to use drugs as a coping mechanism. Blaming yourself, your spouse, other family members, or potential genetics that might have made the child more susceptible to addiction does nothing to solve the actual problem.

Some professionals believe that it is in the child’s best interests to separate him or her from the parents. This is especially true if the parent(s) are addicts themselves. If the parents are not actively using drugs and are willing to be a part of the solution, It has been proven to be more beneficial is to help families find solutions that will bring them closer together, not further apart. Substance abuse is not an easy subject, as many factors can lead to a child developing an addiction to drugs.

Parents are, in fact, have more influence than anyone else over their children. Doctors, Therapists and friends can all play a role in recovery, but parents can provide the love and support that the child needs. Even if your child is tense or withdrawn, there remains a deep-seated connection between parents and their children – a connection that can be relied upon to help save the child’s life.

Parenting As A Team Effort

Whether you are in a solid marriage, or you are parenting separately due to divorce, putting up a united front is an infinitely more effective way of helping the child that each parent is approaching the situation with their style of parenting. Take some time away from the child to discuss with each other the issues at hand and to create an action plan that will allow you to work together to defeat the problem.

A child who sees his or her parents working together to help him or she will be reached in ways that each parent could not have reached the child in working alone. Sometimes you both will agree on how best to approach the situation, other times you’ll need to reach a compromise. What is most important is that you recognize that each of you may handle the situation differently on your own, but in working together, you must put your differences aside and come up with a parenting plan that will best benefit the child in the long run.

Do you have reason to believe that your child may be using drugs? If you are considering seeking help for your child, consider contacting one of our licensed counselors, who can assist you with the process

By Sarah Fader

Updated September 04, 2019

Reviewer Aaron Horn


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Drug Use in Adolescence

Illicit drug use—which includes the abuse of illegal drugs and/or the misuse of prescription medications or household substances—is something many adolescents engage in occasionally, and a few do regularly. By the 12th grade, about half of adolescents have misused an illicit drug at least once.1 The most commonly used drug is marijuana, but adolescents can find many harmful substances in the home, such as prescription medications, glues, and aerosols.1 Many factors and strategies can help adolescents stay drug free: Strong positive connections with parents, other family members, school, and religion; having parents present clear limits and consistent enforcement of discipline; and reduced access in the home to illegal substances.2

Learn More about Adolescents and Illicit Drug Use

  • Check out OAH’s full library of federal adolescent health resources on substance abuse, in general, and those specific to illicit (and non-illicit) drug use.
  • For data and trends on adolescent drug use and addiction, read research summaries on the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s (NIDA) DrugFacts page.

Resources for Parents

  • Parents or other caregivers looking for resources and strategies to prevent, or stop, illicit drug use by adolescents, can visit the Partnership at exit disclaimer icon.
  • Get Smart About Drugs exit disclaimer icon is an online resource from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for parents. It includes research, news, quizzes, and videos to educate parents about how to identify and prevent drug abuse among children and young adults.
  • “Growing up Drug Free: A Parent’s Guide to Prevention” – PDF is a joint effort between the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education that provides information and research specifically for parents on why kids use drugs and how parents can be involved in helping them stay drug free.

Resources for Adolescents

  • Call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) substance abuse treatment helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Confidential, free service, along with referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations, are available for individuals and family members facing substance use and mental health disorders.
  • To find a local substance use disorder treatment facility, visit SAMHSA’s Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator.
  • NIDA has numerous resources on illicit drug use, including a designated section for adolescents looking for more information on the science behind drug addiction and the effects of drug use on the body and brain.
  • To learn how to stay drug free, adolescents can visit Above the Influence exit disclaimer icon, the adolescent-geared website from the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).

Opioids and Adolescents

Substance Abuse/Chemical Dependence in Adolescents

What is substance abuse/chemical dependence?

There are three different terms used to define substance-related disorders, including the following:

  • Substance abuse. Substance abuse describes a pattern of substance (drug) use leading to significant problems or distress such as failure to attend school, substance use in dangerous situations (driving a car), substance-related legal problems, or continued substance use that interferes with friendships and/or family relationships. Substance abuse, as a disorder, refers to the abuse of illegal substances or the abusive use of legal substances. Alcohol is the most common legal drug of abuse. People can often stop substance abuse on their own or with a little help when they realize it is interfering with their life.
  • Substance dependence. Substance dependence describes continued substance abuse, even after significant problems in everyday functioning have developed. Signs include an increased tolerance or need for increased amounts of a substance to attain the desired effect, withdrawal symptoms with decreased use, unsuccessful efforts to decrease use, increased time spent in activities to obtain substances, withdrawal from social and recreational activities, and continued use of a substance even with awareness of physical or psychological problems encountered by the extent of the substance use. People often need professional help when they develop substance dependence.
  • Chemical dependence. Chemical dependence is another term used to describe the compulsive use of chemicals (drugs or alcohol) and the inability to stop using them despite all the problems caused by their use.

What substances are most often abused by adolescents?

Substances frequently abused by adolescents include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Alcohol
  • Marijuana
  • Tobacco
  • Prescription drugs
  • Hallucinogens
  • Cocaine
  • Amphetamines
  • Opiates
  • Anabolic steroids
  • Inhalants
  • Methamphetamine

What causes substance abuse/chemical dependence?

Cultural and societal norms influence acceptable standards of substance use. Public laws determine the legality of the use of substances. Substance-related disorders in adolescence are caused by multiple factors including genetic vulnerability, environmental stressors, social pressures, individual personality characteristics, and psychiatric problems. However, determining which of these factors are most to blame in adolescent populations has not been determined.

Who is affected by substance abuse/chemical dependence?

Parental and peer substance use are two of the more common factors contributing to youthful decisions regarding substance use.

Some adolescents are more at risk of developing substance-related disorders, including adolescents with one or more of the following conditions present:

  • Children of substance abusers
  • Adolescents who are victims of physical, sexual, or psychological abuse
  • Adolescents with mental health problems, especially depressed and suicidal teens
  • Physically disabled adolescents

What are the symptoms of substance abuse/chemical dependence?

The following behaviors may indicate an adolescent is having a problem with substance abuse. However, each adolescent may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Getting high on drugs or getting intoxicated (drunk) on a regular basis
  • Lying, especially about if and how much they are using or drinking
  • Avoiding friends and family members
  • Giving up activities they used to enjoy such as sports or spending time with nonusing friends
  • Talking a lot about using drugs or alcohol
  • Believing they need to use or drink in order to have fun
  • Pressuring others to use or drink
  • Getting in trouble at school or with the law
  • Taking risks, such as sexual risks or driving under the influence of a substance
  • Suspension from school for a substance-related incident
  • Missing school due to substance use and/or declining grades
  • Depressed, hopeless, or suicidal feelings

The symptoms of substance abuse may resemble other medical problems or psychiatric conditions. Always consult your adolescent’s doctor for a diagnosis.

How is substance abuse/chemical dependence diagnosed?

A pediatrician, family doctor, psychiatrist, or qualified mental health professional usually diagnoses substance abuse in adolescents. However, adolescent substance abuse is believed by some to be the most commonly missed pediatric diagnosis. Adolescents who use drugs are most likely to visit a doctor’s office with no obvious physical findings. Substance abuse problems are more likely to be discovered by doctors when adolescents are injured in accidents occurring while under the influence, or when they are brought for medical services because of intentional efforts to hurt themselves. Clinical findings often depend on the substance abused, the frequency of use, and the length of time since last used, and may include the following:

  • Weight loss
  • Constant fatigue
  • Red eyes
  • Little concern for hygiene

Treatment for substance abuse/chemical dependence

Specific treatment for substance abuse/chemical dependence will be determined by your adolescent’s doctor based on:

  • Your adolescent’s age, overall health, and medical history
  • Extent of your adolescent’s symptoms
  • Extent of your adolescent’s dependence
  • The substance abused
  • Your adolescent’s tolerance for specific medications or therapies
  • Expectations for the course of the condition
  • Your opinion or preference

A variety of treatment programs for substance abuse are available on an inpatient or outpatient basis. Programs considered are usually based on the type of substance abused. Medical detoxification (if needed, based on the substance abused) and long-term follow-up management are important features of successful treatment. Long-term, follow-up management usually includes formalized group meetings and age-appropriate psychosocial support systems, as well as continued medical supervision. Individual and family psychotherapy are often recommended to address the developmental, psychosocial, and family issues that may have contributed to and resulted from the development of a substance abuse disorder.

Prevention of substance abuse/chemical dependence

There are three major approaches used to prevent adolescent substance use and abuse, including the following:

  • School-based prevention programs. School-based prevention programs usually provide drug and alcohol education and interpersonal and behavior skills training.
  • Community-based prevention programs. Community-based prevention programs usually involve the media and are aimed for parents and community groups. Programs, such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD), are the most well-known, community-based programs.
  • Family-focused prevention programs. Family-focused prevention programs involve parent training, family skills training, adolescent social skills training, and family self-help groups. Research literature available suggests that components of family-focused prevention programs have decreased the use of alcohol and drugs in adolescents and improved effectiveness of parenting skills.


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