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Warning Signs Your Teen is Experimenting with Drugs

Drug and alcohol abuse in teenagers is a serious issue in today’s culture. Studies show that those who begin abusing drugs as juveniles are at a higher risk of becoming addicts than those who begin using at a later age. This is because the teenage brain is not fully developed, and impulse controls are not as strong.

That being said, teenage drug use isn’t always the easiest problem to identify and solve. There are plenty of hormonal and chemical changes present in the average teenager; mood swings and angst can be very normal.

Some of the most commonly abused substances are marijuana, alcohol, painkillers and cocaine. Here, we break down the side effects and warning signs of each drug. Education is the parents’ first step toward helping teenagers get the help they need before it’s too late.


Some of the potential indicators of marijuana use in your teen may include:

  • Sudden changes in behavior. All teens go through behavior changes. However, sudden changes about privacy, mistrust and nervousness around family and friends may be linked to drug use.
  • Lack of motivation and/or loss of concern for physical appearance. Marijuana is a cannabinoid, which produces feelings of calm, euphoria and slows perceptions and reaction times. The effects of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the active chemical in marijuana) can be present well after use. Typical teenagers are very concerned about their looks, and a drastic change in hygiene and fashion sense could be a sign of marijuana abuse. Be aware of the marijuana smell, and look out for incense or fragrant candles masking the scent.
  • Extreme sleepiness and/or hunger. Excessive hunger (aka “the munchies”) and general sleepiness are often associated with marijuana use. Be careful here. The growing teenager is likely to seek more sleep and more food as a result of natural growth and development, not necessarily because of drugs.
  • Poor memory, trouble concentrating, paranoia. THC has a particular impact on short-term memory and the ability to think or problem-solve. In some cases, the ingestion of products containing THC can cause paranoia.
  • Unexplained need for more money. This could apply for a host of illicit behaviors. Marijuana is an expensive substance, and sudden, unexplained needs for more money (or finding that money has been stolen) could possibly mean there is a hidden marijuana habit.


Some of the potential indicators of alcohol use in your teen may include:

  • Problems in school or disinterest in other activities. While these symptoms are not unique to alcohol, the teen who drinks frequently may often have poor attendance, drops in academic performance or lack involvement with former activities. This may also include a new group of friends, all of whom show similar patterns of behavior.
  • Memory lapses and poor concentration. Again, these are not unique to alcohol use, but parents should be alert to the possibility that these symptoms can be alcohol-related. This is due to the effects of the ethanol used in making alcoholic beverages, which disrupts the function of the hippocampus (region of the brain which forms new memories).
  • Appearing or acting drunk or hung over. These are the easiest symptoms to spot in the teen abuser of alcohol. The effects of being drunk can vary from individual to individual, but most are easily recognized, such as slurred speech, flushed skin, impaired balance and potential violent, erratic behavior. Similarly, alcohol consumption can produce hangovers. Check for nausea, vomiting and signs of alcohol poisoning.

Prescription Painkillers

Some of the potential indicators of prescription painkiller abuse in your teen may include:

  • Slurred speech, drowsiness, dizziness and confusion. Most prescription painkillers contain benzodiazepines and barbituates, chemicals used to depress the central nervous system and slow certain signals sent to the brain. The effects can often lead to chronic drowsiness, dizziness, confusion and problems with speech. Painkiller abuse can also affect memory, and your teen may have trouble recalling conversations or events while under the influence of prescription painkillers.
  • Slowed breathing or lack of coordination. Like all depressants, prescription painkillers work to slow the heart rate and the lungs. This can cause coordination issues, especially in high doses.
  • Depression. It is not entirely understood why some painkillers can lead to depression. However, there are clearly established links between the use of opioids and feelings of depression. While the hormone changes in teens can sometimes cause depression, be mindful that it can also be caused or worsened by misuse of prescription pills.


Some of the potential indicators of cocaine use in your teen may include:

  • Insomnia and weight loss. The use of cocaine floods the brain with dopamine and creates extreme cravings for more of the drug. Users often neglect food and sleep as a result. Cocaine is also a stimulant, leading to restlessness and increased heart rate and blood pressure.
  • White powder on face or clothes. Not all adaptations of cocaine are white, but most street cocaine comes in the form of a pure white powder. Related signs may be small spoons, short straws, rolled up paper or money, or bottles with screw lids used for snorting. Snorting is the most common method for cocaine intake, although smoking and injecting are possible.
  • Bloodshot eyes, runny or bloody nose, frequent sniffing. Frequent snorting of cocaine can lead to many symptoms that might otherwise indicate severe allergies. If your teen has red eyes, is constantly sniffing and appears to have problems with runny or bloody nose, this may be a sign of cocaine use.
  • Anxiety and paranoia. Cocaine is incredibly addictive and very dangerous. The more severe side effects can include a loss of touch with reality and even hallucinations. If you notice any of these symptoms, seek professional help.

What to Do if Your Teen is Using Drugs?

When a parent notices any of these signs, they should speak with their teen about potential drug use. This should be done in a non-confrontational, helpful manner. Always be conscious that drugs create chemical dependency, and in serious cases, it’s not as simple as quitting cold turkey.

Drug use may be the outward manifestation of a deeper emotional problem, becoming an escape for the teen. Remember to be proactive and seek professional help at a rehab treatment facility if needed. The aim is to reduce the likelihood of addiction and return the teen to a normal, healthy life.

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