Seventy-eight percent of teens have consumed alcohol at least once, with about half admitting to consuming 12 drinks or more per year. Twenty-two percent of teens admit to using marijuana, with 10% abusing prescription drugs or illicit drugs other than marijuana. During the last decade, drug use among teens decreased, but research suggests that drug use among adolescents is once again rising. This is troublesome news for parents, educators, and public health officials, since drug use poses serious dangers to teen’s development. Moreover, drug use subjects teens to financial and legal dangers, to violence, and to long-term legal penalties. Teens convicted of drug-related offenses are often not eligible for federal financial aid to fund their college education.
To adults, the world of teens can be mysterious, confusing, and perhaps even frightening. Knowing your teen, acclimating yourself to her world, and recognizing the early signs of drug use, though, can help you keep your child safe.
Risk Factors for Teen Drug Use
Although any teen can abuse drugs or develop an addiction, not all teens face the same degree of risk. All teens should be monitored for signs of drug dependence, but if your teen has several of the following risk factors, he or she is especially vulnerable:
- Early drug or alcohol use. Teens who consume alcohol or drugs at an early age are more likely to become addicted. Research suggests, for example, that teens who drink are 750% more likely to try drugs.
- Lack of parental supervision. Teens whose parents are uninvolved in their lives, as well as teens whose parents work long hours, are more vulnerable to drugs and alcohol. The hours immediately after school are, statistically speaking, the most dangerous time for teen drug use.
- Drug availability. Teens can’t use drugs if they’re not available, so it’s important for parents to secure their medicine cabinets, get to know their kids’ friends, and teach their kids to resist peer pressure.
- Family history. Teens whose immediate family members abuse drugs and alcohol are more likely to do so themselves. These teens may be more genetically vulnerable to addiction, or it could be that early learning increases these kids’ susceptibility to addiction. More likely, it’s a combination of both learning and genetics.
- Kids who live in poverty, and most especially kids who live in violent or dilapidated neighborhoods where drugs are readily available, are vulnerable to addiction.
- Teens with mental illness are twice as likely to try drugs as kids who have no mental health problems.
- Teens who had behavioral problems as children, particularly teens who showed signs of aggression, are more likely to try drugs and alcohol.
- Environmental stress of any variety, including parents’ divorce, a history of trauma or abuse, or even a break-up, can spur drug abuse and addiction in teens.
Signs of Drug or Alcohol Abuse in Teens
Every drug affects teens’ behavior in different ways, so it’s important to know your child. Any sudden change in personality or behavior could indicate addiction, particularly if the change is not better explained by something else. In general, though, the following signs suggest drug or alcohol use:
- A sudden change in grades or participation in extracurricular activities; teens with an addiction may drop out of sports or struggle in school.
- Spending time with peers who use drugs.
- A change in friendship groups.
- Increasing secretiveness; it’s normal for teens to want privacy, but a teen who goes from talking to you about everything to telling you nothing may be using drugs.
- Erratic behavior; teens who abuse drugs may be sobbing one minute and manic the next.
- Aggressive or hostile outbursts.
- Difficulty sleeping.
- Sudden changes in appetite or weight.
- Anxiety and depression.
- Skipping school.
- The sudden disappearance of valuables; if cash, your phone, or other valuable goods go missing, it’s possible your teen is stealing them to pay for drugs.
- Changes in physical appearance or personal style.
- Unexplained health problems, such as vomiting, changes in blood pressure, or skin problems.
- Impulsive decisions; teens are notoriously impulsive, but if your child takes extreme risks, such as driving recklessly or disappearing at night, this suggests drug or alcohol use.
- Strange odors emanating from your child, his or her room, or your child’s clothes.
- Secretive telephone calls.
- Changes in computer habits.
- Reckless sexual behavior.
- Making excuses to leave the house at night, during family gatherings, in the middle of the holidays, or at other strange times.
Drug Paraphernalia and Physical Effects
If your teen shows some behavioral signs of drug use, look for the following physical clues:
- Unexplained bruising or track marks on his or her arms.
- Nosebleeds or sinus problems that aren’t well-explained by a medical condition.
- Frequent coughing or smelling like smoke.
- Pipes, lighters, or pipe cleaners in your teen’s room.
- Broken blood vessels in your child’s eyes.
- Dilated pupils.
- Frequent sweatiness, even when it’s cold.
- Shaking, dizziness, and difficulty with balance and coordination.
- Syringes in your child’s room.
- Finding powder, black tar-like substances, pieces of leaves, or other unexplained crumbs near pipes, syringes, and other common drug paraphernalia.
- A large quantity of drug-related supplies in your child’s room. Common drug paraphernalia includes spoons, straws, rolling papers, razor blades, cigarette filters, grinders, and knives. It’s perfectly understandable if your teen has one or two of these items, but as these item’s prevalence increases, so too does the risk that your child is using drugs.