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Identifying Signs of Substance Abuse and Dependence in Teens

One constant concern for parents of adolescents is substance abuse. Substances range from alcohol and illegal drugs, to over-the-counter medications and household cleaning products. Because substance abuse can have far-reaching consequences for adolescents, it is critical that parents learn the warning signs.

Substance Abuse

The simplest definition of substance abuse is any harmful or illegal use of drugs that causes significant negative consequences. These consequences may include injuries, accidents, blackouts, or risky sexual behavior. Many signs of substance abuse mirror behaviors and problems of a typical adolescent, including the following:

  • Frequent, often noticeable, intoxication

  • Changes in social circle, or reluctance to introduce friends to parents and family

  • Avoiding school or extracurricular activities

  • A rapid decline in academic performance

  • Sudden mood swings, violent outbursts, or disruptive behavior

  • Secretive behavior like locking doors, lying, or sneaking out

  • Depression or anxiousness

  • Difficulty sleeping or irregular sleeping habits

  • Change in personal appearance or poor hygiene

While the psychological signs of substance abuse may be difficult to pinpoint, the physical ones are often easier to spot.

  • Abnormally slow movements or reaction time

  • Confusion or disorientation

  • Sudden change in weight, appetite, or eating habits

  • Unusual pupil size, either too small or too dilated for lighting conditions

  • Chronic nosebleeds and sinusitis

  • Persistent cough or symptoms of bronchitis

  • Progressive dental problems

  • Temporary psychosis or hallucination

Substance Dependence

Not all teens who abuse substances become dependent on them, but substance dependence remains a serious risk. Substance dependence is prolonged substance abuse despite significant substance-related problems. The most common of these problems is an increased tolerance for the drug, which means that the user needs progressively larger quantities of the drug to obtain the same physical effect. Other symptoms of substance abuse include the following:

  • Symptoms of withdrawal, a physiological reaction to discontinued use of the abused substance

  • Continued failure to meet obligations at home, work, or school, despite repeated warnings or consequences

  • Stealing from friends or family members to buy more drugs or alcohol

  • Use of the substance even when it is physically hazardous

  • Legal, personal, or interpersonal problems as a result of the substance abuse

Substance abuse and dependence impact not only the teen, but also the entire family. Parents who suspect their child may have a substance abuse problem should consult a professional for guidance. For teens who abuse drugs or alcohol, the most effective recovery programs provide assistance and therapy for the entire family.

The information is provided for general reference purposes. It does not constitute medical or other professional advice and should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your child and adolescent psychiatrist or other physician.


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