Some teen behaviors, like skipping class, becoming disruptive in school and stealing from stores are more serious than typical teen rebellion and could be signs of addiction.
Teenage behavior problems are not uncommon. One expert from Harvard Medical School reports that when teens begin to develop independence, they may at times violate rules, such as curfew. Other experts note that becoming independent is the main goal of the teenage years and that fluctuations in emotion are also common during this time.
While normal teenage behavior can involve moodiness and some bending of the rules as teens experiment with independence, some risky behavior during the teen years can indicate a problem with drugs or alcohol.
Behaviors That Could Signal Teen Substance Abuse
There are typically warning signs of drug use in teens. A teen who is suffering from addiction may have difficulties at school, repeatedly violate rules, come home under the influence or face legal charges. There are several warning signs to look out for in your teen. While they may not always indicate drug use, a repeated pattern or combination of many warning signs could mean that your teen is engaging in dangerous or risky activities.
According to criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, continued drug use that results in difficulty meeting responsibilities at school is one of the symptoms of a substance use disorder. If your teenager regularly skips school, it is possible that he or she is abusing drugs or alcohol. Kids skipping school may be meeting with friends to use drugs or alcohol, or perhaps they are recovering from the effects of using drugs or alcohol the night before.
Sneaking Out at Night
While minor rule violations such as occasionally missing curfew by a few minutes may be normal for teens, repeatedly sneaking out of the house could be a concern. Teens who sneak out at night may be using drugs because they feel they can get away with it after parents have gone to bed.
Researchers report that parents can differentiate drug-related curfew violations from normal teenage tardiness. For example, teens who are sneaking out at night to use drugs will likely create stories about where they were. On the other hand, teens who are a few minutes late coming home will not hesitate to give an accurate account of where they were and who they were with, and their accounts can be verified.
With the failure to fulfill responsibilities at school being a sign of substance abuse, school-related consequences can be a sign that your teen is using drugs. For example, if your teenager is failing at school, this could be because he or she has stopped doing homework or studying for tests in favor of using drugs. A teen who is ill from withdrawal may also have difficulty paying attention during class, which can lead to failing grades.
It is possible for a teen to experience additional school-related consequences, such as being disruptive at school or being caught with drugs at school. Teens who are struggling with addiction may take drugs to school so they can use them between classes to avoid withdrawal. Since significant personality changes can be a sign of an underlying problem, it is possible that teens who suddenly become disruptive are abusing drugs or alcohol.
Coming Home Drunk or High
Coming home impaired by substances is an obvious sign of concern. Teens under the influence of drugs or alcohol may display the following symptoms:
- Slurred or incoherent speech
- Either extreme talkativeness or limited communication
- Depending on the drug used: dilated pupils, pinpoint pupils or bloodshot eyes
- High energy and euphoria immediately after use
- Drowsiness and fatigue if “coming down from the high”
Different substances are associated with different signs of being high. For example, marijuana use is linked to bloodshot eyes, whereas dilated pupils usually result from the use of cocaine, amphetamines or hallucinogenic drugs. On the other hand, heroin and barbiturate drugs can cause pupils to become small and pinpoint.
Legal difficulties are another sign that a teen is engaging in drug use. The most obvious criminal charge associated with an addiction is a teen arrested for drugs. Most teens who are arrested for drug use will have to appear in juvenile court to respond to the charge. He or she could be placed on probation, required to complete treatment or ordered to spend time in a juvenile detention center or correction facility.
A teen caught stealing may also be using drugs. It is possible that the teen is stealing expensive items to sell for drug money, or they may have to steal necessities such as food, gas or clothing as their funds have been used for drugs.
Does My Teen Need Rehab?
If your teen is displaying several risky behaviors and is showing other signs of drug abuse, it is possible he or she has developed an addiction. Other signs such as depression, extreme mood swings, lack of motivation, poor hygiene, weight changes, social withdrawal, violence, irrationality, relationship problems with family, disregard for authority and secrecy are signs your teenager is doing drugs and is at risk for addiction.
If your teen demonstrates multiple signs of addiction, has been observed under the influence, and perhaps has been caught in possession of drug paraphernalia, such as needles, tin foil, burned spoons, pipes, balloons, straws and lighters, teen drug rehab may be necessary.
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Levy, Sharon. “Behavioral problems in adolescents.” Merck Manual, February 2019. Accessed August 23, 2019.
Dowsher, Steven. “A parent’s guide to surviving the teen years.” KidsHealth, January 2015. Accessed August 23, 2019.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “Impact of the DSM-IV to DSM-5 changes[…] Use and Health.” June 2016. Accessed August 23, 2019.
Shahid, Ali; et al. “Early detection of illicit drug use in teenagers.” Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience, December 2011. Accessed August 23, 2019.
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.