For Parents and Caregivers:
Substance Abuse in Adolescents and Teens

One of the most challenging and confusing aspects of adolescence is the process through which young people begin to define identities that are separate from simply being their parents’ children. In the quest to establish their independence, though, many adolescents simply substitute one dominant influence for another – they stop listening to what their parents or caregivers are telling them, and start following the directions of their peers.

Regardless of how adults may recall their younger days, peer pressure can exert a strong influence over even the most independent-minded young people – and if that pressure is pushing in the direction of alcohol and other drugs, many adolescents and teenagers may find themselves incapable of just saying no.

Multiple studies have documented the extent to which illicit substances have permeated youth culture. According to the annual Monitoring the Future survey of drug-related behaviors and attitudes among young Americans, many teens and adolescents have used or been offered marijuana, alcohol, prescription medications, methamphetamine, and a number of other drugs. And though many teens (and some adults) believe that youthful drug use is a relatively harmless “rite of passage,” the cold reality is that substance abuse can and does result in considerable damage to the lives of countless young people.

Signs of Drug Use

The following symptoms and behaviors may indicate that a teenager or adolescent is using, abusing, or developing dependence upon alcohol or another drug:

  • Drastic, sudden, or extreme changes in school performance, work ethic/attitude, or personality
  • Angry or violent outbursts for no apparent reason
  • Sudden or dramatic changes in weight (either gains or losses)
  • Hostility toward family members (including parents and siblings)
  • Loss of interest or withdrawal from events, activities, sports, or hobbies that were previously very important to the teen
  • Changes in sleeping patterns (either insomnia or extreme sleepiness)
  • Changes in energy levels (either hyperactivity or excessive fatigue/sluggishness)
  • The abandonment of old friends, and a reluctance to discuss or introduce new friends
  • Increasing secretiveness and an unwillingness to divulge whereabouts or activities
  • Missing money or valuables from the house

Talking to Your Teen About Drugs

The National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign offers the following tips to parents who aren’t sure how best to approach the topic of drug use with their teenagers:

  • Be a better listener. Ask questions - and encourage them. Paraphrase what your teen says to you. Ask for their input about family decisions. Showing your willingness to listen will make your teen feel more comfortable about opening up to you.
  • Give honest answers. Don't make up what you don't know; offer to find out. If asked whether you've ever taken drugs, let them know what's important: That you don't want them to use drugs.
  • Use TV reports, anti-drug commercials, or school discussions about drugs to help you introduce the subject in a natural, unforced way.
  • Don't react in a manner that will cut off further discussion. If your teen makes statements that challenge or shock you, respond by encouraging a calm discussion of why people use drugs, and whether the effect is worth the risk.
  • Role-play with your teen and practice ways to refuse drugs in different situations. Acknowledge how tough these moments can be.
  • Be clear with your children that you don't want them to use drugs. Talk often about the dangers and results of drug and alcohol abuse. Once or twice a year won't do it.

The Partnership for a Drug-Free American advises parents to embrace technology as a means of keeping the lines of communication open between themselves and their teens:

  1. Learn how to send text messages, instant messages, e-mails, and other popular forms of networked communication. Not sure how to send a text message on your phone or an instant message on your computer? Ask your teen to give you a lesson.
  2. Learn the lingo. Your teen may “talk” online in a format that looks like little more than gibberish to you. But IMHO, if you can’t understand SMS or IM shorthand, your teen and her BFF may LOL at what u don’t know. Get online, Google “teen text lingo” and expand your linguistic skills.
  3. Familiarize yourself with social networking sites. Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and other such sites continue to attract and connect users of all ages. And recent studies have revealed that a lot of young people are spending a lot of time on online social networking sites talking about sex and drugs. Learn how these sites work, find out which ones your teens are using, and be sure that their online experiences aren’t inappropriate.
  4. Be clear and consistent about what is off limits on the web, including specific sites, chat rooms, games, or blogs. Keep the computers your children use in an easily viewable location (such as the living room), let them know the rules, and establish clear consequences for breaking these rules.
  5. Limit your teens’ daily screen time, and periodically review what they have been looking at online.

How to Help if Your Teen is Using Drugs

The advice on this page and elsewhere on this site can help you limit the likelihood that your teenager will use drugs, but no techniques can guarantee that your son or daughter will resist the temptation to experiment with illicit substances.

If you discover (or suspect) that your child is abusing alcohol or another drug, don’t despair – help is available, and your support and guidance can go a long way toward steering your child back toward a healthy, drug-free future.

The following three tips can help you heal your family and help your teen:

  • Stay calm. Yes, you may feel that you have every reason in the world to berate your teen, but ask yourself one question first: Have you ever been inclined to agree with someone who was screaming at you? Your child knows that you’re not happy with the situation, but reacting in a calm and logical manner will help emphasize that you intend to work with your child to stop the drug use.
  • Educate yourself. Your family physician, your local library, and the Internet are all excellent resources for educating yourself about teen drug use and treatment options. Everything you can learn about what your child has been doing will prepare you to approach the problem with confidence, and will help you to map a path to a successful resolution of the problem..
  • Get help. Talking to someone about your teen’s drug use may rank very high on the list of conversations you never want to have – but attempting to hide the problem may accomplish little more than making a bad situation that much worse. You are an expert on your child, but you’re probably not an expert on drug abuse or recovery. Combine your expertise with the knowledge and experience of a treatment professional to give your child a much better chance of ending the drug use before any more damage is done.
For more information about how you can help your child overcome a problem with alcohol or other drugs, call 866-323-5608 to have a confidential conversation with a counselor who can answer your questions and help you find the resources that are best suited to your specific situation.