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What Every Parent Needs to Know 
February 27th, 2018

1) Why is it important to detect early warning signs of substance abuse in teenagers?

Substance use and abuse during adolescence can have permanent consequences. The adolescent brain is still developing, particularly in the areas involved in decision-making, impulse-control, judgment, and risk-assessment. Substance use can significantly alter the structure of the brain and interfere with the development of these important functions, leading to more at-risk behavior throughout life.

2) What should parents do if they believe their teen may be using?

Parents need to trust their instincts. If they feel something is wrong, they need to honor that feeling and take proactive steps. First and foremost, they need to communicate with their teen. If substance use is suspected, drug testing is highly recommended. Teens with little to hide are usually willing to participate. However, resistance to these tests could indicate use and/or abuse. Parents should coordinate with one another when addressing the situation, as a teen can sense discord between parents and use it to his or her advantage. The first step is to consult with a credentialed professional working with adolescents and substance abuse. Private mental health specialists and treatment programs often provide free, confidential assessments.

3) What substances are commonly used by teenagers?

Alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco use are the most common among teenagers. A 2010 government study found that 29% of 10 th graders had engaged in drinking behavior, and 30% had used marijuana in the last month. Teenagers have reported access to, and use of, other substances, such as cold medications, inhalants, depressants (barbiturates, benzo-diazepines), stimulants (amphetamines, cocaine, methamphetamine), narcotics (Oxycontin, Vicodin, morphine, codeine), hallucinogens (LSD, mushrooms), dissociative anesthetics (PCP, ketamine), and club drugs (ecstasy, MDMA).

5) What is SUD?

Substance Use Disorder is characterized not by the quantity and frequency of substance use, but by the consequences it has on the user's career/education, friend and family relationships, and health. Because of the accessibility of drugs and alcohol to teenagers, many teenagers may experiment with these substances, and use does not necessarily lead to abuse. However, an addict is rarely able to recognize when he or she has crossed the line.

6) What are some common warning signs of drug and alcohol abuse?

It is not always obvious that a teenager has begun to develop a drug or alcohol addiction. However, there are many indicators to watch out for:

  • Physical indicators: bloodshot eyes, dilated/contracted pupils, deterioration of personal appearance, impaired coordination and speech, tremors, and unusual smells on breath, body, and clothes (especially smoke).
  • Psychological indicators: sudden mood swings, irritability, unexplained changes in personality, lack of motivation, periods of unusual hyperactivity, and paranoia/anxiety.
  • Behavioral indicators: drop in performance and attendance at school, unexplained financial problems, unusual secretiveness, unwillingness to communicate or cooperate, loss of inhibitions, sudden change in friend group, hobbies, and hangouts, and unwillingness to discuss new friends and activities.
  • Health indicators: frequent nosebleeds, runny nose not caused by allergies or cold, sores and/or spots around mouth, queasiness, vomiting, and sudden dramatic weight loss or gain.
  • Possession of paraphernalia: items may include: eye drops, matches, lighters, rolling papers, pipes, multiple pill bottles, make-shift tourniquets, needles, and mirrors (used for drugs that are snorted, will usually have powdery residue on the surface).