How to Recognize the Early Signs of Teen Drug Abuse

By: Heather R. Hayes, M.Ed., LPC, CAI, CIP

Too often, parents don’t learn about their teen’s drug addiction until they are squarely in the middle of a crisis. By then, it’s a mad scramble to manage the symptoms of the substance abuse, whether it’s the aftermath of an overdose or legal troubles. Being able to recognize some of the early signs and symptoms can help you find help for your teen before the worst happens.

First, it’s important to understand that most kids who get involved in drugs may do so as early as 12 years old, so it’s not unreasonable to look for signs much sooner than you might think.1 Among the common signs of drug use or abuse are changes in behavior or mannerisms, but many parents may only look for radical changes.

Other early warning signs of teen drug abuse may include:

Behavioral changes

• Becoming uncommunicative with family members
• Isolating themselves in their rooms
• Skipping family trips
• Refusing to complete their household chores
• Violating curfew
• Unusual communication patterns, such as being excessively talkative or speaking incoherently
• Skipping classes; grades plunging
• Stealing money or items to pay for drugs
• Lying about their whereabouts or what they’ve done
• Lying about insignificant or unimportant things
• Exhibiting manipulative behaviors
• Responding angrily or violently to simple requests or trivial arguments; aggressive behavior in general.
• Excessive drowsiness
• Constant picking or scratching at skin or hair

Social changes

• Frequent change of friends
• Withdrawing from normal family time such as dinner time or movie nights
• Changing normal routines or activities
• Getting into trouble at school

Emotional changes

• Showing apathy or low productivity
• Exhibiting poor self-control
• Dramatic mood swings
• Depression or crying spells
• Anxiety; nervousness

Physical changes

• Dressing differently or bizarrely
• Neglecting their personal appearance and hygiene
• Sudden changes in weight—losses or gains
• Slurring speech
• Bloodshot eyes, widely dilated pupils, or pinpoint pupils
• Needle tracks in arms, legs, or abdomen
• Raw, dripping nostrils from snorting drugs

If you notice any of these changes in your teen, it’s not always a sign of drug use, but it’s wise to follow up with any concerns you have. First, have a conversation with them, but remain calm and non-judgmental. Listen more than you talk and let them know you are there for them whenever they feel ready to open up.

If you believe there is drug use taking place, buy a drug-testing kit from your local pharmacy and ask them to take it. Or you can take them to their primary care doctor for a drug screening. You may need to check with their pediatrician first to ensure they feel comfortable administering a standard screening and have referrals available for adolescent drug treatment, if necessary.

You can also find an addiction specialist in your area and contact them directly. Both the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Society of Addiction Medicine have provider finder tools on their websites. Ask specific questions about how they treat teens your child’s age and make sure you can meet with them in advance for an informational session if you would like one.

The most important thing is to do something if you suspect anything. Early detection and treatment produce the best long-term outcomes for teens and young adults.


1. Ali, S., Mouton, C.P., Jabeen, S., Ofoemezie, E.K., Bailey, R.K., Shahid, M., & Zeng, Q. (2011). Early Detection of Illicit Drug Use in Teenagers. Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience, 8(12), 24–28.
2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). What to Do If Your Teen or Young Adult Has a Problem with Drugs.

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