3 Clear Signs of Teenage Substance Abuse

The young always have the same problem – how to rebel and conform at the same time. They have now solved his by defying their parents and copying one another.”

– Quentin Crisp, British writer and actor

Teenagers throughout time have always had an inbuilt, hormone-fueled desire to rebel, to be as unique and different as possible from their peers, and yet, as Quentin so rightly points out above, teenagers also desire, in exactly the same breath, to be socially acceptable among those same peers, and as likeable and like-minded as they can be.

Listening to the same bands, or at least to music from a similar genre, wearing similar styles of clothes (no need to mention the sneakers…), and maybe even supporting the same basketball or football team – there are many things that can bring together a disparate group of unique individuals such as teenagers.

And that endless list of unifying things definitely includes the different substances to get you high, and the different kinds of alcohol to get you drunk.

Call it “experimentation,” call it “simple curiosity,” call it “social or group peer pressure,” in fact, call it what you want – it’s the same outcome, and it’s been going on far, far longer than the obvious practise of teenagers congregating every weekday in a place called “high school.”

The drug street names, and their concoction and mixture, may vary over time, and the alcohol may vary in taste, but across the entire United States, it’s the same types of substances that are regularly used, equally misused and often abused to the extreme – the old favorites of alcohol and marijuana, and now, prescription medications (such as opioid painkillers, and stimulants, such as ADHD medication).

These drugs, along with alcohol, are easily the most likely to be abused by teenagers nationally, and, quite possibly, to lead to addiction – or medically speaking, either Substance Use Disorder (SUD) or Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). Both disorders are described as “chronic, relapsing brain disorders” – importantly, and to clarify each disorder’s seriousness, they are classed as chronic medical diseases, just like Type I diabetes, hypertension or asthma. Furthermore, they all have similar rates of relapse.

Treatment for substance addiction usually involves either residential attendance at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center that accepts teenagers, or as an outpatient within an addiction treatment program designed for teenagers, such as an adolescent day treatment program.

Balancing Teenage Curiosity & Substance Abuse Dangers

So how exactly can you safely balance a teenager simply growing up and maturing, and being protected from the dangers of substance abuse? For the parents and guardians of American life-curious teenagers, substance abuse should be viewed with the same threat-potential as when you told these same teenagers as young children to never accept candy from and to never get in a car with strangers.

The consequences back then, as are the consequences now, worrying to say the least – in fact, they are highly dangerous and could even prove fatal, especially when many so-called prescription drugs are actually emanating from illegal labs (often abroad), sold online, and then entering the black market here.

Striking a balance is maybe key, but even more so is the education of all teenagers about the various substances out there, their effects and risks, the real dangers of becoming addicted, and the drastic and long-term effects of addiction that can last a lifetime for one so young.

Consider these statistics from the U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services and other government sources:

  • 5% of 12th graders have tried alcohol at some point
  • 13% regularly binge drank* (consuming four or more alcoholic beverages in a row)
  • 6% drove after drinking
  • 11% of high school students report misusing prescription medications in the past year (however, if you look specifically at painkillers, that number is only 4%), and
  • ER visits for ADHD medication misuse tripled between 2005 and 2010

So how exactly can you tell if your teenager is abusing substances, ie. either drugs or alcohol, or even both?

 Substance abuse in teenagers leads to the development of 3 types (or groups) of clear, tell-tale signs (all very difficult to hide or explain away, regardless of what the teenagers are pleading at the time) – these can be defined as the physical, the emotional, and the social signs of teenage substance abuse.

Note: It is important to remember that signs of substance abuse and addiction can vary depending on the type of substance being abused.

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1. The Physical Signs

These are undoubtedly the clearest and most identifiable signs you will notice if your teenager is abusing drugs or alcohol, as physical changes to the face and body are obviously the hardest to hide. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), physical signs of substance abuse include (among others):

  • Bloodshot eyes and/or dilated pupils
  • Extreme weight gain or loss
  • Tremors / shaking
  • Deterioration in physical appearance and personal grooming, eg. bad breath or body odor
  • Impaired coordination
  • Seizures

2. The Emotional Signs

Hormonal, exam-stressed or “broken-hearted” teenagers can be their very own whirlpool of turbulent emotions; however, substance abuse will invoke a number of recognizable psychological signs, including (among others):

  • Personality and attitude changes
  • Hyperactivity
  • Agitation
  • Cognitive problems
  • Anxiety
  • Lying and dishonesty

3. The Social Signs

With the physical and emotional signs mentioned above, social signs of substance abuse will also develop in response to these, and simply as a matter of course. These social signs can include (among others):

  • Frequent family arguments
  • Truancy / Getting into trouble at school
  • Lower grades
  • Sudden and unexpected changes in friends and relationships
  • Secrecy and other suspicious behavior
  • Asking for money or even stealing
  • Possession of drug/alcohol paraphernalia

By making yourself fully aware of these physical, emotional and social signs (as well as the others that this space does not allow), you are placing yourself in the best position to determine if your teenager is abusing substances. Obviously, any complete medical determination requires the involvement of either your own family physician or a professional addiction clinician.

Lastly, let your teenager read this article, and make them aware that there is a plethora of useful information online about addiction and the various substances that are involved. As we’re talking about the often dubious internet here, always ensure the websites you are educating yourself from are legitimate and accredited. Education is the key.