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Many teens and young adults drink alcohol and try drugs. This does not always mean that they have a drug or alcohol ‘problem’. However, there are instances where such behavior can become cause for concern. This could include getting high or getting drunk regularly, or making poor decisions when under the influence such as neglecting responsibilities or breaking rules/laws. This is usually categorized as ‘substance abuse’.

Most kids will hide this behavior from their parents, so it can be very difficult to know whether your child is abusing substances. However, there are a few telltale signs that you can look out for. 

Signs of substance abuse in your kids


Do they constantly seem high or drunk?

Behavioral changes are an obvious sign to look out for. They may act clumsily, laugh hysterically or seem withdrawn. Many kids will try to hide the fact that they are drunk or on drugs, however you can usually tell by looking at their eyes – if their eyes are bloodshot, their pupils are unusually dilated or their eyelids seem very heavy, they’re probably on something. 

Do they frequently smell of alcohol or drugs?


Smells can be another distinct giveaway. If they constantly smell of marijuana or alcohol, they’re likely abusing these substances. Some kids will try to cover up these smells by constantly chewing gum or spraying themselves with lots of deodorant – look out for these signs too. 

Are they displaying unusual mood changes?


Substance abuse can affect our behavior even when not under the influence. Your child may act hostile, withdrawn or tired when experiencing a hangover or withdrawal symptoms. This is likely to be noticeably different from regular grumpy teenage behavior. If your child acts in a very secretive manner (such as always locking their bedroom door or making an effort to hide their phone when texting), you should also be suspicious of what this could mean.

Have they lost interest in activities they once loved?


You should be concerned if your child starts losing interest in things that they were once passionate about. This could include sports or creative hobbies. Many people who become addicted to substances start to revolve their entire life around these substances and may not have the motivation for other interests. 

Are they hanging out with different friends?


You should also consider who your child is hanging out with. Once kids start drinking and taking drugs, they may start hanging out with other people who drink and take drugs, while possibly abandoning old friends. You may hear stories of their friends getting drunk or taking drugs, or you may even witness it first hand. If these friends are abusing substances, then there’s a high chance your child may be pressured into doing the same thing.

Has their school performance been negatively affected?


Not all kids are academically gifted. However, you should be concerned if your child suddenly starts producing much lower grades or is skipping school. Something is likely distracting them from their education. It may not be drugs or alcohol, but it’s something worth considering.

Are they sleeping more than usual?


If your child has started sleeping for unusually long periods, you may want to consider what could be the cause. They may be dealing with the after-effects of alcohol or drugs, or they may even be under the influence and waiting for the effects to wear off before coming out of their bedroom. Most teens like to sleep for long periods, but if they start getting up much later or taking unusual naps, substance abuse could be occurring. 

Are there any other physical signs like weight loss or track marks?


Different substances can have different effects on the body, some of which can be physical and difficult to hide. Substances ranging from alcohol to cannabis can induce vomiting in some people, while cocaine abuse can lead to nosebleeds. Many forms of substance abuse can lead to unusual weight loss or weight gain. Track marks meanwhile are common scars left behind by injecting drugs (much like self-harming scars, many people will try to hide these by wearing long sleeves or trousers). 

Confronting your child


If you suspect your child is abusing substances and you are worried, you should confront them about it. Some will admit to it straight away, but most kids will deny it. 

When confronting your child, try not to be overly judgmental of their behavior straight away. Discuss the signs that you have picked up on and express your concern. This will encourage your child to open up. 

On top of confronting your child, you could also try talking to other people such as parents of friends or even teachers. They may have witnessed behavior or may have heard stories that confirm that substance abuse is going on. 

Be prepared to also explore other causes for strange behavior beyond substance abuse. Bullying, abuse, secret relationships, physical health problems and mental health problems can all cause kids to act differently, and may similarly require you to seek support.  

Getting your child help


If substance abuse is indeed the problem, consider whether seeking professional help could be beneficial. This could include encouraging them to speak to a therapist or even looking into a rehab facility if their addiction is severe. 

It’s worth initially encouraging your child to help themselves. Once you have clear evidence that your child is abusing drugs or alcohol, you should be vocal about your disapproval and you should encourage them to quit. If they try and fail, you may have to provide some tough love, but don’t go overboard. At the very least, make it clear that you don’t want them drinking or taking drugs under your roof. 

You can encourage them to seek professional help without arranging it for them by sending them links to substance abuse support services or by leaving a flyer or print-out to professional services on their bed. You could also try encouraging friends or siblings to have a word with them privately. A group intervention is generally not needed unless your child has continuously ignored concerns from the people around them. 


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Digital Product Creator at Kori at Home
Kori is a late diagnosed autistic/ADHD mom. She is currently located in Albany, NY where she is raising a neurodiverse family. Her older daughter is non-speaking autistic (and also has ADHD and Anxiety) and her youngest daughter is HSP/Gifted. A blogger, podcaster, writer, product creator, and coach; Kori shares autism family life- the highs, lows, messy, and real. Kori brings her own life experiences as an autistic woman combined with her adventures in momming to bring you the day-to-day of her life at home. Kori is on a mission to empower moms of autistic children to make informed parenting decisions with confidence and conviction.

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