10 Signs of Teen Substance Addiction - And What To Do About It

By: Susan Kehl | Last Updated: March 1, 2023




Just when you think you’ve got this whole parenting gig figured out – you realize you don’t. From the terrible twos through the turbulent teens, children learn and grow as they test their limits – and ours. Toddlers have tantrums. Teens are moody. But sometimes, a gnawing inner voice makes you wonder if your child is experiencing more than just a normal phase. In fact, if you’re reading this, you may be concerned that your teen is involved with substance abuse. You’re not alone. Substance addiction in adolescence is on the rise.

According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, more than 20 percent of eighth graders have tried illicit drugs at least once. By the time they graduate high school, that number jumps to 47 percent. In addition, 62 percent of high school seniors have admitted to abusing alcohol. Even more concerning – 70 percent of individuals who try an illegal drug before age 13 develop a substance abuse disorder within the next seven years, and individuals aged 15 to 24 account for more than 11 percent of drug overdose deaths.

The substances of choice? A 2021 Monitoring The Future survey of students in eighth, tenth, and twelfth grade showed that the most commonly used substances among adolescents are alcohol, marijuana, and nicotine vaping. Teenage substance use also often includes illicit drugs and narcotics like cocaine, opioids, and non-medical use of prescription drugs.

Teenage drug addiction often begins with casual experimentation. And, according to the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) – even One Pill Can Kill. DEA lab tests show that six out of 10 fentanyl-laced counterfeit prescription pills contain a potentially lethal dose of fentanyl. Tragically, numerous deaths have occurred after teens unknowingly purchased counterfeit fentanyl-laced pills through social media or other unfamiliar sources, or were unintentionally given tainted pills by a friend or acquaintance.

Scary, right? As a parent, how can you recognize the signs of substance abuse, and – more importantly – what can you do to prevent your child from becoming another statistic?

Judi Robinovitz, an educational consultant with more than 30 years of experience, says prevention and early intervention are key.

“It’s important to regularly talk to and educate your children about drugs and substance abuse in general – long before they’re even exposed to drugs and alcohol,” she said. “Knowing how to recognize potential drug addiction signs so you can intervene immediately can help prevent an addiction from taking hold and encourage your teen to make healthy choices going forward.”

Recognizing Drug Addiction Signs

It isn’t always easy to recognize drug addiction in teenagers because many of the telltale red flags are also signs of other mental health issues like anxiety, depression – or even just typical teen angst (issues that often go hand-in-hand with drug and alcohol abuse). But if your teen exhibits several of these signs, substance abuse might be a factor:

1. Isolating Self From Family and Friends

If your used-to-be social teen is suddenly keeping to himself, it could be a sign that something is up – and that ‘something’ could be drug use. Social and emotional isolation, one of the classic signs of addiction in adolescence, often includes excessive sleeping, withdrawing from social contact, and avoiding speaking to and making eye contact with family members.

2. Sudden Change In Friends/Hanging With the ‘Wrong’ Crowd

Perhaps your teen is still spending time with friends – but not the friends you’ve come to know and love. Instead, she seems to have ditched her longtime friends and is suddenly secretive about who she’s with and where she goes. If the kids your teen is hanging out with are drinking and using drugs, she may feel pressured to follow the crowd to feel accepted.

3. Extreme Mood Swings/Change in Personality

Is your teen experiencing typical adolescent moodiness, or could it be something more? Substance addiction in teenagers often leads to more extreme mood swings, including overreacting to seemingly inconsequential situations and becoming overly defensive, anxious, irritable, paranoid, aggressive, destructive, and belligerent.

4. Frequently Asking For Money

Sure, every teen wants money for a new pair of shoes or the latest video game. But if he suddenly needs the money more often or is spending money more quickly than usual (without having anything specific to show for it), he might be spending it on drugs or alcohol. He may ask for money for bogus-sounding activities or causes (like money for a field trip that never occurs…a computer repair when his computer seems fine…), or you may notice money missing from your wallet.

5. Problems In School

Is your straight-A student suddenly skipping school, not turning in assignments, being disruptive in class, or not studying for tests? A sudden drop in grades, attendance, or change in behavior is another potential symptom of addiction in adolescence.

6. Changes in Physical Appearance

Has your teen suddenly gained or lost weight, stopped styling her hair and wearing makeup, or shown another drastic change in her physical appearance? Maybe you notice that her eyes are often bloodshot…sometimes she stumbles when she walks or seems more uncoordinated than usual…

7. Finding Substances or drug paraphernalia in Your Teen’s Room or Personal Belongings

As a parent, it’s beyond shocking to find a bottle of alcohol or a bag of marijuana in your teen’s room. And when she tells us she’s holding it for a friend, you want to believe her. And if you think you might smell smoke or alcohol on his breath or notice he’s slurring his words, you may convince yourself it’s your imagination. Trust your instincts and don’t ignore these red flags.

8. Lack of Interest or Involvement in Former Activities

Your son has played recreational basketball since elementary school and has always been passionate about playing the saxophone. But he didn’t sign up for basketball this year, and he suddenly quit the marching band. He’s no longer taking saxophone lessons or even practicing his scales. If your teen suddenly loses interest in pastimes he’s always enjoyed and seems unmotivated to participate in activities, it’s a sign that something isn’t right.

9. Neglecting Responsibilities

Extreme procrastination, missing deadlines, skipping appointments, being late to work, breaking rules, and not taking responsibility for their actions may also be an indication of substance addiction in teenagers.

10. Lying and Making Excuses

“Everybody vapes”; “I only tried beer one time”; ”I walked by a group of kids smoking weed…I must have gotten the smell on my clothes”; “My eyes are red because I used a new eyeliner – I must be allergic”; “I was out doing stuff – I don’t have to tell you everything!” When your formerly honest, trustworthy teen suddenly becomes secretive, tells lies, and makes excuses, it’s time for a heart-to-heart conversation.

Getting Help For Your Teen – and Your Family

If your teen exhibits several of these signs and you suspect potential substance abuse, start by having an open, non-accusatory conversation. Let your teen know that she can tell you anything without fear of being judged or punished – even if she tells you something you don’t want to hear. Let her know you’re there for her and discuss possible solutions together. In addition:

  • Always know where your children are and who they are with

  • Set limits and establish and enforce rules, curfews, and consequences, being sure not to fall for the, “you’re too strict – all of my other friends are allowed to…” trap.

  • Continually discuss topics like mental health, substance abuse, driving under the influence, peer pressure, and other pertinent issues, and let your children know they can always talk to you – no subject is off limits.

  • Keep all prescription drugs and alcohol out of reach, and monitor your inventory to ensure nothing is missing.

  • Sometimes there’s a fine line between giving your teen privacy and intervening to prevent a serious problem. If you strongly suspect that your teen has a substance abuse problem and she’s denying it, consider a drug test. Also, don’t be afraid to check her room, backpack, etc. for suspected substances or paraphernalia.

  • If your teen is being destructive and belligerent to the extent that you believe his behavior can be dangerous to himself or others, seek immediate professional help.

Also, seek support from trusted resources like your teen’s guidance counselor, and look into local family support groups. Reach out to your health insurance provider to learn about substance abuse and mental health-related benefits, as well as to obtain a list of in-network counselors. Additionally, you can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline for free, confidential referrals to local substance abuse and mental health resources.

Additional Support

Without a doubt, addiction in adolescence is a tough nut to crack and sometimes, despite a family’s best efforts, a teen continues to spiral out of control. Robinovitz says that if your teen is truly struggling, it may be time to speak to a mental health practitioner or professional educational consultant about a more specialized, intensive approach, such as a therapeutic boarding school, residential treatment program – or even a wilderness therapy program.

“Therapeutic boarding schools and treatment programs provide a nurturing environment where students feel safe, supported, and are given the time and tools they need to make positive changes in their lives,” she said. “Students receive therapy and get the customized help they need while attending school in a highly structured, healthy environment that promotes healing as well as academic achievement.”

The Road Ahead

Nobody ever said parenting would be easy. But most parents agree that their parenting journey is one of life’s greatest rewards – complete with its ups, downs, twists, and turns. Embracing life’s challenges together – as a family – in a supportive, nurturing environment can give you and your children the tools necessary to navigate and weather any storm. Remember, you’re not alone. You’ve got this, mom and dad.

Need help choosing the best-fit treatment program or therapeutic boarding school for your teen? JRA Educational Consulting has your back. We’ll leverage our in-depth, firsthand knowledge and expertise to recommend schools and programs that best meet your teen’s specific needs. And we’ll support your teen – and your family – every step of the way. So rest assured – we’ve helped countless families – and we can help yours.


Topics: drug addiction substance abuse


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