As any experienced parent will tell you, teenage behavior is, by definition, strange. It is a time of discovery, growth, and progressive independence. It is also a time of confusion, mood swings, and the testing of boundaries. For many adolescents, it is also when they start experimenting with mood-altering substances such as alcohol, prescription medications, and illicit drugs.
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Adolescence – A Time of Upheaval
Concerned parents know to watch out for the telltale signs of substance abuse, but that is complicated by “typical” teenage behaviors:
- New friends
- Changes in appearance
- Mood swings
- Evolving interests
- Problematic personal hygiene
- Odd sleeping patterns
- Discipline problems
- Poor grades
- Emotional – and even physical—separation from the family
As stressful as the teenage years may be for parents, it is a natural part of their children’s development. They are learning who they are, and more importantly, who they are going to be.
Adolescence – A Time of Experimentation
Unfortunately, many of these teenage behaviors closely resemble the behaviors of someone abusing alcohol or drugs:
- Increased secrecy
- Spending an inordinate amount of time alone in their room
- Strange new friends
- Dramatic changes in appearance
- Unexplainable mood swings—aggression, anxiety, depression, etc.
- Loss of interest in previous hobbies and activities
- Poor personal hygiene
- Odd sleeping patterns – excessive sleeping OR excessive wakefulness
- Discipline problems at school, home, or work
- Uncharacteristically poor grades
- Social withdrawal
Although at first glance, the two sets of behaviors are virtually identical, the important distinction is WHY your adolescent or teen is going through these changes. If it is normal teenage behavior, then sometimes all you can do is buckle up and hold on. It DOES eventually get better. But if it is teenage addiction, then you will have to take a much more direct approach. Let’s take a closer look at how to distinguish between the two different types of behaviors.
Changes in Appearance
At the onset of puberty—and even well into it—your child often undergo a dramatic physical transformation. They will grow taller, weight will be redistributed, and they start taking on more mature adult characteristics. The transition isn’t necessarily smooth, but it IS healthy. This is not the case with substance-induced physical changes.
- Dramatic weight loss—The most obvious sign of stimulant abuse
- Weight gain—Often a sign of than alcohol or marijuana use
- Loss of muscle tone—Alcohol or opioid abuse
- Puncture marks and scabs – IV drug use
- Burns on the fingers or lips—From lighters or drug pipes
- Stains or rashes around the nose and lips—Inhalant abuse
- Discolored or decayed teeth—Methamphetamine abuse
- Glassy or reddened eyes, pinpoint pupils
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Poor Personal Hygiene
Rampant hormones can wreak havoc on a teenager’s personal hygiene. Even the most fastidious teenager will have problems keeping up with oily skin, blackheads, acne, and patchy facial and body hair. But it’s not typically an issue of personal cleanliness or disinterest. However, someone who is actively addicted and compulsively drug-seeking loses interest in the niceties of good personal hygiene.
- Infrequent bathing or showering
- Rank or sour smell—Stimulant abuse often results in excessive sweating
- Uncombed hair
- Disheveled appearance
- Dirty, stained, or torn clothing
- Chemical smell on the breath—Inhalant abuse
Of course your teenager will feel an increased desire for privacy. They will resist your efforts to know their whereabouts at all times. This is normally a difficult adjustment for parents. But although your teenager may not volunteer information, they will not usually purposefully lie to you as part of their normal behavior. They want their own space, but their goal is not to violate your trust. That is not a concern for substance-abusing teens. In this case, the addiction takes priority, not honesty.
- Lying about their whereabouts, company, or activities
- Stealing money, medications, alcohol, or valuables
- Putting passwords on electronic devices
- Hiding calls, messages, and texts
Odd Sleeping Patterns
Teenagers are notorious for their need to sleep. It is not uncommon at all for parents to have to wake their teens again and again in the morning, and then virtually needing to push them out the door to go to school. But a teen abusing alcohol and drugs will have truly abnormal sleeping patterns. For example, a teenager using alcohol, opioids, or tranquilizers might be almost impossible to rouse from sleep. They may be extremely groggy and confused when woken, or they may be hungover, still feeling the effects of the previous evening. Alternately, stimulant abusers may go days with little to no sleep. They may sometimes be in constant motion and unable to sit down. But after a few days of this, they may start to act extremely paranoid or even delusional. Also, if their drug of choice isn’t available, they may go into withdrawal, which can be characterized by sleep disturbances and terrifying nightmares.
Teenage hormones can also impact moods. The stereotype of the sometimes surly, angry, irritable or overly-emotional teenager isn’t that far from the truth. But the personality changes caused by substance-abuse are often completely out of character.
Substance-driven mood swings are a bit more obvious as such when you pay attention to their other behaviors. For example, if your teen is acting shaky and anxious, but then disappear into their room for a while and reemerge overly-talkative and easily distracted, that should be a red flag.
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Strange New Friends
Part of your teen discovering who they are is finding out who they want for friends. During this transition, adolescence often distance themselves from childhood friends. You may not recognize the people your teenager is hanging around now. But even then, your teen will usually associate with people with whom they have something in common, or at least who share their evolving interests. And although your child may act like they are completely embarrassed by you, they will still tolerate introducing their new friends. When a teenager starts to experiment with alcohol or drugs, however, they may have almost nothing in common with their new buddies. In fact, the substance use may be the only interest that they share. Because of this, your teen will put as much distance as possible between you and the people they drink and/or use with. If days or weeks have gone by and you still haven’t been introduced to any new friends, you may have cause for concern.
Loss of Interest in Hobbies and Activities
As they move from childhood to adolescence to young adulthood, your teenager’s interests will change. Sometimes, they will put aside toys, games, hobbies, and activities that they once enjoyed because they feel they are too “grown up” for such things. Also, as they explore new interests, they may sacrifice the time they once spent in old pursuits. But the key thing to look for here ISN’T the abandonment of old hobbies, because once again, that’s perfectly normal. You should start to be concerned, however, if your once-engaged and active teenager shows no interest whatsoever in anything new. Why does this happen? Substance abuse changes a person’s brain to the point where the only way they can experience pleasure – or even feel normal—is when they are under the effects of alcohol or drugs. Addiction robs them of the joy they used to feel and replaces it with a compulsive need to use and drink again and again.
Separation from Family and Friends
As you child grows, they will feel the need to exert their independence. This will sometimes mean forgoing family activities and normal social interaction with longtime friends. They want to do “their own thing”, even if they are not completely sure what that “thing” is. Also wanting to demonstrate that they are maturing, your teenager may not talk to you or confide in you as much as they once did. That isn’t a reflection on your relationship, it is just part of growing up. But during healthy adolescence, separation doesn’t mean complete abandonment. Your teenager will still want to participate in most traditional family activities, and they will still seek you out for advice. The dysfunction caused by an active addiction, however, means that NOTHING is more important than that next drink or that next high. And if it means missing out on movie night or someone’s birthday party, that is the price that their addiction-driven brain is willing to pay.
Discipline Problems at Home, School, or Work
Obviously, the need to test their boundaries will cause some friction between you and your teenager. This could mean breaking curfew, cutting a class, forgoing chores, etc.. These are all “typical” teenage acts of minor rebellion. But as rebellions ago, these behaviors are relatively minor. Most importantly, unacceptable behaviors of this type are usually easily corrected with minor discipline—restriction, withholding allowance, no electronics, and so on. The infractions are more serious, the consequences are greater, and the discipline is harder to apply to a teenager struggling with an active addiction. They don’t care about the consequences, as long as they get what they need. Examples of problematic “acting out” might include:
- Staying out all night
- Disrespect to teachers and parents
- Skipping school entirely
- Vandalizing property
The possibility of substance abuse grows if your child is completely indifferent to the consequences. If they aren’t concerned when they get suspended, expelled, grounded, or arrested, it may be because all of their focus is on drinking and using.
Physical Signs of Teenage Substance Abuse
Sometimes you can look around your teenager’s life to find signs of substance abuse.
- Liquor bottles or beer cans
- Pill bottles
- Medication packaging
- Rolling papers
- Lighters or matches
- Pipes or bongs
- Small plastic bags
- Household cleaners
- Paint thinner
- Gas cans
- Eye drops
If you suspect that your child is drinking or using drugs, don’t be ashamed to snoop—your child’s life is more important than their right for privacy. And if you find anything, don’t fall for the old “It’s not mine, I’m holding it for a friend.” That’s never true.
What to Do if Your Teenager is Addicted
The first thing that you should not do is preach and lecture, especially if your child is drunk or high when you find out. If they are impaired, they want register anything you were saying. The best thing you can do is get your teenager specialized professional care that addresses their unique needs as an adolescent. Don’t be swayed by pleading, begging, or promises – that is the addiction talking. Substance abuse disorders are too complicated and persistent for you to attempt to handle it on your own within your family. A trained and experienced addiction specialist can help your teenager recover their sobriety and help your family heal from the disease of addiction.