As a parent or guardian, it’s vital to understand the signs of drug abuse and how to address it. Here’s what you need to know…

It’s frightening to imagine that your child, already growing up so quickly, might be using drugs or drinking. However, drug abuse in teenagers is a very real problem. In 2015, 58% of high school seniors had used alcohol in the last year, and almost 36% had used marijuana. Prescription drug abuse in teenagers came in at 12.9%. Drug use in teens can cause complications throughout the rest of their lives. As a parent or guardian, it’s vital to understand the signs of drug use and how to address it. Here’s what you need to know:

Signs of drug abuse in teens

Changes to normal habits

A change in your teen’s regular habits may be one of the first things you notice. However, these changes are often the easiest to blow off because they seem like isolated events. Sometimes, you may only notice something is off when you see several of these together.

Watch out for these key signs of drug abuse in teenagers:

  • New cravings and an increased appetite
  • Alternatively, a sudden lack of appetite
  • A change in friend group, especially if they’re not spending time with people they used to be close to
  • Complaints from teachers about misbehavior in class
  • Poorer grades

Changes in physical appearance

Physical changes will vary depending on what substance the individual is using, and they may be harder to spot. Look out for:

  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Unexplained bruises, wounds, or track marks on arms
  • Long sleeves in hot weather when they usually wear short sleeves
  • Flushed cheeks
  • Careless personal hygiene or disheveled appearance
  • Soot on fingers or lips
  • Shaking or tremors
  • Unusual smell on clothing or breath (they might chew gum or eat mints to mask it)
  • Nosebleeds or a runny nose without a cold
  • Constantly licking lips

Secretive behavior

Some people are more withdrawn and introverted by nature, and this may be normal for your child. But when an extrovert starts getting quiet, or an introvert withdraws even further, it’s time to take a closer look. Here are some behaviors you may recognize:

  • Going out at night or disappearing for long periods of time
  • Locking doors
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Stealing
  • Missing class, extracurricular activities, or work

Changes in the home

Some things stand out as a blatant sign that something’s wrong, such as finding a hidden stash of drugs or alcohol. But sometimes, the signs are more subtle. Keep an eye out for unusual changes to your home environment, such as:

  • Containers or wrappers you don’t recognize
  • Drug paraphernalia, like smoking devices, eye drops, butane lighters, and syringes
  • Dents in the car that can’t be explained
  • Missing prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs, or alcohol

Are they using drugs, or just growing up?

While you may view your child as still young, they’re probably already encountering very adult situations. Some of this is natural and healthy as they learn how to operate in the “real world.” But some is definitely not.

Remember that many of the behaviors associated with those substances (think moodiness, changing friend groups, and poor dressing) can also just be part of going through young adulthood. As a parent or guardian, you may be the only person able to notice something serious going on behind the scenes. This list is meant as a guidance tool, but not a diagnosis.

What to do if you suspect drug abuse in your teen

Ask questions directly

Before you make an accusation, ask them. Give them a chance to explain the situation. Don’t be afraid to ask the simple (but difficult) questions, such as “Are you using drugs?” “What drugs have you used, exactly?” “Have you had alcohol?”

You may be worried that conversation will get out of control. If this is the case, take some time to go through NIDA’s Family Checkup tool. It offers simple training for communicating with your teen in a healthy way.

Finally, be prepared for what you’re going to say if they tell you that they have been using. No matter how much you may believe they’re totally clean, you have to be prepared so you don’t let your emotions dictate your reaction.

Have the child take a drug screening

If your teen denies using drugs or alcohol but you strongly suspect that they’re not being honest with you, you can have them screened for substances through a doctor. Make sure beforehand the doctor provides this service, and if not, ask for a referral. You can also contact an addiction center directly. (Want to talk to someone right now? Call us at 855-401-1193)

Set or reaffirm boundaries

If the child is using drugs or alcohol, the first step is to make some real changes in their lifestyle. This should start with car use. If they have a license, it’s important to take away driving rights immediately.

According to, car accidents are the leading cause of death among people ages 16-19. Also, in 2011, 12.4% of high school seniors had driven after using marijuana, and 8.7% had driven after drinking. Drug use can greatly increase the risk of a car accident, and your first step after learning about the substance is to make sure your child is safe.

Get help

If your teen is addicted to drugs or alcohol, they will likely need assistance detoxing from the substance. Some substances, such as alcohol, can be painful and even deadly to attempt to withdraw from without a doctor’s support.

After detox, a treatment program can help them learn about recovery and take control of their life again. Repeated drinking or drug use physically changes the brain, and sometimes willpower just isn’t enough to overcome addiction.

Worried about your child?

Realizing your teenager is using drugs or alcohol can be overwhelming. But we’re here to help them through recovery. Learn more about our treatment programs, and if you need any guidance, give us a call.


Monitoring the Future Survey, Overview of Findings 2015.” National Institute on Drug Abuse. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Dec 2015. Web. 24 May 2016.

Prescription Drugs.” NIDA for Teens. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Web. 23 May 2016.

DrugFacts: Drugged Driving.” National Institute on Drug Abuse. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, May 2015. Web. 23 May 2016.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.