I Think My Child is Using

Your first step: Ask

If you think your child may be drinking or using drugs, the first and most important thing you can do is to come right out and ask.

Look for signs and symptoms

Knowing what to look for is a huge help in determining whether your child is drinking or using drugs. If you’re familiar with the signs of drug use, that knowledge can aid you in gathering evidence and starting the conversation.

Keep in mind: many of these signs of drug use or alcohol use—in isolation—may be just normal teen behavior. Mood swings or changes in behavior are a standard part of growing up as teens make the transition from childhood to adulthood. However, as you start to recognize more and more of these signs and symptoms in your teen, a picture of drug or alcohol use may begin to become clear.

Behavioral Issues

The signs of substance abuse aren’t all physical. Be aware of these behavioral indicators that may be a sign that your teen has been drinking or is using drugs, especially if you’ve noticed an abrupt change in one of these behaviors.

  • Change in relationships with family or friends.
  • Loss of inhibitions
  • Mood changes or emotional instability
  • Loud, obnoxious behavior
  • Laughing at nothing
  • Unusually clumsy, stumbling, lack of coordination, poor balance
  • Sullen, withdrawn, depressed
  • Unusually tired
  • Silent, uncommunicative
  • Hostile, angry, uncooperative
  • Deceitful or secretive
  • Makes endless excuses
  • Decreased motivation
  • Lethargic
  • Unable to speak intelligibly, slurred speech, or rapid-fire speech
  • Barring hearing loss or stroke, slurred speech is usually linked to the influence of some type of drug.
  • Inability to focus
  • Hyperactive
  • Unusually elated
  • Periods of sleeplessness or high energy, followed by long periods of “catch up” sleep

Personal Appearance

Most drug and alcohol use may cause some change in physical appearance. Few of these in isolation are definitive proof of teenage alcohol use or drug use, but may fit into a larger pattern of symptoms, or act as a way to open up a conversation with your teen.

  • Messy, careless appearance
  • Poor hygiene
  • Track marks on arms or legs (or long sleeves in warm weather to hide marks)
  • Track marks are a clear sign of intravenous drug use. They range from small red marks to open sores and bruising.
  • Burns or soot on fingers or lips
  • Red, flushed cheeks or face

Personal Habits

Look for changes in your teenager’s behavior or personal habits that might indicate drug or alcohol use. If you notice any of the below, look for some of the other signs, or use them as a way to begin a talk with your teenager.

  • Smell of smoke on breath or clothes
  • Chewing gum or mints to cover up breath
  • Heavy use of over-the-counter preparations to reduce eye reddening (eye drops), nasal irritation, or bad breath (breath mints or gum)
  • Frequently breaks curfew
  • Cash flow problems
  • Reckless driving, car accidents, or unexplained dents in the car
  • Notice if your teen is driving more recklessly when she returns than when they left.
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Clenching teeth
  • Both Meth and Ecstasy cause involuntary teeth clenching.
  • Locked bedroom doors
  • Going out every night
  • Secretive phone calls, texting, instant messages or emails
  • “Munchies” or sudden, voracious appetite
  • Sudden or increased use of air fresheners, scented candles, or incense

Home or Car Related Issues

If you’ve noticed items disappearing around the house, or found some unusual objects appearing, it’s a good time to have a talk with your teenager about what you’ve noticed, and to start looking for other signs of teenage alcohol abuse or drug use.

Mood swings and changes in behavior are often a normal part of teenage development. But in some cases, these may be potential indicators of teenage alcohol abuse or possible drug abuse. If you suspect your teen may be using alcohol or drugs, here are some tell-tale signs you can watch for:

  • Disappearance of prescription or over–the-counter pills
  • Missing alcohol or cigarettes
  • Disappearance of money or valuables
  • Unusual smell in the car or bottles, pipes, or bongs on floor or in glove box
  • Appearance of unusual containers or wrappers, or seeds left on surfaces, like Frisbees, used to clean marijuana
  • Appearance of unusual containers or wrappers and drug apparatus, including pipes, rolling papers, small medicine bottles, eye drops, butane lighters or makeshift smoking devices, like bongs made out of toilet paper rolls and aluminum foil
  • Hidden stashes of alcohol

Health Issues

Drug and alcohol use can cause a number of effects on health, minor to major. Look for these symptoms in your teenager. If you spot some, don’t be afraid to suggest a visit to your teen’s doctor. Often a doctor can offer a medical perspective or an outside viewpoint on what’s happening to your teen.

  • Frequent nosebleeds
  • Excessive nosebleeds could be a sign of snorted drugs, such as cocaine or meth.
  • Runny nose, not caused by allergies or a cold
  • Frequent sickness
  • Sores, spots around mouth
  • Queasy, nauseous
  • Seizures
  • If your child has a seizure but does not have epilepsy, you should be aware that it could have been caused by huffing inhalants.
  • Vomiting
  • Wetting lips or excessive thirst (known as “cotton mouth”)
  • Discounting average thirst, dry mouth and excessive thirst are signs that a person is smoking marijuana or taking Ecstasy.
  • Sudden or dramatic weight loss or gain
  • Skin abrasions/bruises
  • Accidents or injuries
  • Depression
  • Headaches
  • Sweatiness

School or Work Issues

Notice how your teenager is doing at school, any sudden change in how she or he is doing homework—or what you’re hearing from teachers or school administrators.