How to spot drug and alcohol abuse in your child

Posted at 3:36 PM, Jan 23, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-26 10:18:39-05

Drug and alcohol abuse may seem like a distant problem, but they could be affecting your home by way of your teenager.

In fact, 78 percent of more than 10,000 surveyed teens admitted to having tried alcohol, while 47 percent said they’d had at least 12 drinks in the past year, according to a 2012 study from the Archives of General Psychiatry. As for drug use, 81 percent of the surveyed teens said they’d had opportunities to try illicit substances, with over 42 percent trying them.

Teen alcohol and drug use matter, for one, because these substances negatively affect the adolescent brain. There is also the disastrous potential for drunk driving and car accidents.

You can protect your teens from the negative effects of drugs and alcohol by fostering an open relationship. In addition, look for these signs your child might be abusing substances, so you can get them help.

1. Sudden change in friends

More and more kids are using with childhood friends and family members who parents often have a false sense of security with. They are often experimenting with drugs as a rite of passage.

More often than not, a teen's first exposure to drugs or alcohol is from an older peer. If your teen is hanging out with a new and older crowd, pay attention. Most kids' hobbies and interests change as they age, but if your child is suddenly no longer interested in their old friends, there could be something else going on. Talk with your teen about any new social developments, and stay up to date on who they’re spending their leisure time with.

2. Boundary pushing

Asking to stay out later is part of growing up, but a sudden and repeated pattern of missing curfew could be a sign your teen is using drugs. Note when and why your teen starts pushing against set boundaries, particularly if curfew hasn't been a problem in the past. Teens also tend to want more privacy as they experience adolescence, but a demand for constant privacy and isolation is also a sign of a deeper issue. Someone who's hiding something may get overly defensive when asked about a schedule or the night’s activities. Keep this in mind as you judge between normal teenage behavior and signs your teen might be using drugs or alcohol.

“We ask parents to monitor social media patterns and patterns of socialization particularly requests to be away from the family for hours/days at a time. So if a teen has an emerging pattern of wanting to isolate from their family and spend 24 hours at a time at a friend’s house or “hanging with friends” we are finding that to be a better indication of emerging drug use than just declining grades.” – Director of Outpatient Services, DACCO



3. Academic decline

School isn’t easy for everyone, but most healthy teens don’t have much difficulty following basic rules and turning in homework on time. If you notice your child has a higher number of absences than usual, it's a red flag. Arguing at school and talking back to teachers are also behaviors to watch for, as drug use causes teens to feel defensive, irritable and even reckless. Although some kids may show more drastic changes than others, DACCO, the Drug Abusive Comprehensive Coordinating Office, has experienced drug using teens who can still maintain A/B averages, as well as those who consistently perform poorly throughout their academic career. With that being said, it is best to watch for truant attendance, declining grades and worried teachers, as these all go hand in hand with substance abuse.

“We see a higher correlation between declining grades and co-occurring mental health issues. Mostly our co-occurring SUD/Anxiety/Depression kids show declining grades so if there is a decline in that area it is a cue for parents to get the kid checked out medically with referral from the pediatrician to a psychiatrist” – Director of Outpatient Services, DACCO. 

4. Physical changes

If your child is using drugs or alcohol, she or he may not show much interest in family mealtimes and may exhibit obvious changes in diet and sleep. Watch for bloodshot eyes, nosebleeds and dilated pupils when your teen gets home from a long night out. If you notice slurred speech or strange or unexplained injuries, they are telltale signs of substance abuse.

As you watch for these signs, remember you know your children best. If their emotional responses seem extreme or out of the ordinary, trust your instincts. Be direct by expressing you want to help them be safe and happy. You can also ask for help from a professional prevention, intervention and drug treatment center.