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Early Warning Signs of Substance Use in Teenagers

Early warning signs in Teens

​One doesn't have to look far to find news and heart-breaking stories in the community about the devastating consequences of addiction among teenagers. If we can catch things early on, there's a better chance of successfully treating addiction and preventing its disastrous and sometimes deadly consequences. When it comes to the disease of addiction, the old saying of, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," is apt.

The key to catching things early is to know and pay attention to the warning signs of substance use. If you suspect your child might be struggling from the use of alcohol or drugs, it's time to learn what to look out for.   

The first thing to remember is that teens are already in a stage of life where their moods fluctuate up and down. This is a normal part of puberty. But if your child is more temperamental and moody than usual, there can still be questions about what is really going on with him or her. And in some cases, there may be real concerns about the possibility of substance use. If you suspect this might be the case, here are some of the possible warning signs:

  • Drastic mood changes
  • Neglecting hygiene and dress  
  • Sudden, dramatic changes in friends and who teens hangout with
  • Disengagement from family activities or time spent together
  • More frequent, unaccounted and unexplained whereabouts  
  • Poor communication when they had been communicating well in the past
  • Suddenly being dishonest where they were fairly open and truthful in the past
  • Spending more time alone or in their room
  • Getting defensive when you ask them questions or ask about what they did that day or how their day went
  • No longer having interest in activities they once enjoyed 

These warning signs involve looking at the whole picture of your child's life and asking yourself, "Are these behaviors new and atypical for my child?" If the answer to many or all of these warning signs is "Yes," than it's time to begin paying close attention to see if a pattern is evolving that might lead you to recognize that, "Maybe there is something serious going on here with substance use."

Next, take a closer look at your child's school and academic performance. Check with your child's teachers, coaches, and other school staff to see if his or her academic performance is declining – and if he or she is no longer working at his or her previous ability level. Also, check to see if the child has lost focus or is less engaged in the classroom, with schoolwork, and in extra-circular activities. Once you gather this information, determine if the changes are dramatic and significant, and if there are no other good explanations for these changes.

If many of these warning signs are present, the next step is to have a discussion with your child about your concerns and observations. Good ways approach this discussion are…

  • Talk with your child during a neutral time when you and your child are calm.
  • Express your love and concern for your child's well-being.
  • Calmly and reasonably present the information you gathered and are concerned about.
  • Give recognition to the day-to-day pressures your child may feel being among peers and wanting to fit in, and in his or her exposure to new situations, things, or people.
  • Tell your child you understand substance use and experimentation is an inevitable part of growing up and that your priority is to make sure he or she is safe, responsible, and informed.
  • Ask your child about his or her past and current use of alcohol and drugs.
  • Remain calm and non-judgmental.    

It's important to set the right tone so your child feels comfortable sharing with you openly and honestly. The key here is to start a dialogue in a way that helps promote ongoing communication about substance use. Given early intervention and the right support, teens struggling with substance use can navigate away from the pitfalls and tragedy of full-blown addiction.