Teen Drug Abuse

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Drug abuse is a pressing issue among today’s teens. About 1 out of 7 high school seniors have abused prescription drugs, and some teens even abuse illicit drugs, from marijuana to meth to heroin.

Drug abuse can have serious consequences for teens, including dropping out of school, getting STIs, getting into legal trouble, and even experiencing a fatal overdose. Here you will learn the signs and symptoms of teen drug abuse as well as how to find treatment.

The Truth About Teen Drug Abuse

The truth is that most teens do not abuse drugs. However, the potential for abuse is worrisome for many parents, and there are worse effects that can occur if a person begins abusing drugs as an adolescent. People are more likely to become addicted to marijuana if they started “using it when they were teenagers.”

Other important facts about teen drug abuse are:

  • “Older teens are more likely to use drugs than younger teens.”
  • Younger teens actually abuse inhalants much more often than older teens. Inhalants are a form of drug abuse where the individual uses household products (spray paint, cleaning products, glue, etc) to get high. This can lead to further drug abuse.
  • One in three teens “have used marijuana in the last year.”
  • Teens suffering from anxiety disorders, depression, or other psychological issues are more likely to abuse drugs.
  • Teens who see their parents abusing drugs are more likely to do so as well.

Prevention and honesty are key elements in helping to keep teens off drugs. If you suspect that your child may already be using, look for the signs and symptoms of teen drug abuse.

Signs of Teen Drug Abuse

A teenager who is abusing drugs will exhibit specific signs that connect to their drug abuse. Some might be physical, some might be behavioral, but they will be noticeable if you know what you are looking for. Here are some general signs of drug abuse to watch for.

  • A persistent cough
  • Difficulty walking
  • Extreme changes in appetite
  • Strange movement or size of pupils
  • Odd speech patterns (either too fast or too slow)
  • Hyperactivity or sluggishness
  • “Secretive behavior”
  • A tendency to lie, steal, or behave in other ways that are unlike their normal behavior
  • Issues at school and work
    • Your child may become extremely apathetic toward their responsibilities and they may start missing days, leading to poor grades or work performance.
  • A sudden disinterest in things and activities that used to make them happy
  • Sudden changes in friend circles, only wanting to spend time with new friends who also abuse drugs
  • General confusion
  • Becoming angry or hostile when asked where they were, who they were with, what they were doing, etc.

These are just the common signs that occur with nearly any type of drug abuse. Someone who is abusing prescription drugs, illicit drugs, or inhalants will likely exhibit many of these physical and behavioral signs. Knowing what to look for can help you decide whether your child is abusing drugs or dealing with another issue.

Signs of Specific Drugs of Abuse

If you do believe that your child is abusing drugs, it might be helpful for you to know exactly which drugs cause certain effects. Different drugs can cause specific effects and each abuse syndrome may be a little bit different. Here are the syndromes for some of the drugs most commonly abused by teens (excluding alcohol and tobacco).

  • Marijuana Abuse
    • Physical signs: bloodshot eyes, “impaired… coordination and balance,” cough (marijuana smokers), increased heart rate
    • Behavioral signs: euphoria, laughing for no reason, memory problems, confusion, increase in appetite
  • Illicit or Prescription Opioid Abuse
    • Physical signs: nausea/vomiting, constipation, respiratory depression (can be extremely dangerous)
    • Behavioral signs: euphoria, drowsiness, apathy
  • Molly/Ecstasy Abuse
    • Physical signs: sweating, chills, irregular heartbeat, dehydration, “teeth grinding/clenching”
    • Behavioral signs: extreme amounts of energy, euphoria, anxiety, irritability, insomnia or other sleep disturbances
  • Inhalant Abuse
    • Physical signs: strange smelling breath, paint stains on hands and clothes, seizures, slurred speech
    • Behavioral signs: “hallucinations/delusions,” confusion, euphoria
  • Prescription Depressant Abuse
    • Physical signs: slowed heart rate and respiration, seizures
    • Behavioral signs: drowsiness, relaxation, calmness

Certain drugs have symptoms that are similar to others. For example, stimulants (often called uppers) like Adderall, meth, and cocaine can cause “rapid, explosive speech,” confusion, and behavioral issues as well as problems with the heart (NLM). Depressants like Xanax and Ambien can cause drowsiness, slurred speech, and extreme apathy and depression. Opioids, whether prescription drugs like hydrocodone (Vicodin) or illicit ones like heroin, can cause drowsiness, pain relief, and dry mouth.

It will help to know the class of drugs your teen may be taking. If you are concerned, see if their behaviors and physical signs fit into one of these categories. Then pay attention to symptoms as well.

Symptoms of Teen Drug Abuse

When a teen experiences symptoms of abuse, they will not be obvious to the casual observer. Often, this makes it much harder to pinpoint symptoms in order to be sure that the person is abusing drugs. Still, if the individual complains of

  • Constant headaches
  • Itchiness
  • Their extremities feeling heavy
  • Thoughts that others cannot be trusted
  • Feelings of extreme depression or unhappiness

they may be abusing drugs and could potentially need help. Many teens do not realize the side effects of their abuse, or they try to ignore them or treat them in another way so that they don’t have to give up the drug. If your teen complains of issues that you cannot find a cause for, there may be a possibility that they are caused by drug abuse. Symptoms can be difficult to be sure of though, and one should only take them into account when enough signs are present that point to drug abuse.


Other signs of drug abuse are

  • Drug-related paraphernalia in their rooms or hidden other places. These items may be:
    • Needles
    • Burned matches
    • Pipes
    • Empty prescription drug bottles
    • Empty aerosol cans or other types of inhalants
    • Bent spoons
    • Belts or tie offs
    • Pen caps
    • Tobacco paper rolls

Alcohol abuse is another common sign that can also point to drug abuse. Many teens who abuse drugs do so with alcohol to heighten the effects of both substances. Alcohol abuse in a person’s younger years can make them more likely to start abusing other substances as well, so it is important to look for the signs of alcohol abuse.

  • Intoxication
  • Relaxation
  • Poor reflexes
  • Slurred speech
  • Problems sleeping or drowsiness
  • Problems with coordination

Why Do Teens Abuse Drugs?

There are many factors that can make a teen more likely to abuse drugs. Some of which were discussed before, such as genetics, environment, and the amount of their daily stresses.

Many teens take drugs hoping to “feel good,” “to fit in,” or “to experiment.” Others may do it in an attempt to self-medicate, especially if they do not realize that they have a physiological disorder or are denying an issue that they do not want to think about. Some teens even take drugs to try and do better in school; taking prescription stimulants as study drugs to keep them awake and focused is a common practice, especially for those in college.

Teens may take drugs for all kinds of reasons, ones which you as their parent may not understand. This does occur, and the most important thing you can do is to try and help your child without judgment or blame and to help them get treated for their drug abuse problem.

Drug Abuse Treatment for Teens

“Because no single treatment is appropriate for every adolescent, treatments must be tailored for the individual” (NIDA 2). This is true of both treatment for adults and for teens. In fact, the treatment process for both is quite similar. But every individual needs their own specific treatment plan which should be modified whenever necessary for them to get the best treatment possible.

When you are certain that your child has been abusing drugs and needs help, find a treatment facility that will be fitting for their needs. There are several ways you can find a possible facility, including:

  • Discussing them with your child’s doctor
  • Calling your local government office or insurance provider
  • Searching through our curated list of rehab centers or calling us and speaking to one of our specialists.
  • Talk to your child’s guidance counselor

There are two types of formal addiction treatment facilities.

  • Outpatient facilities
    • “Adolescent drug abuse treatment is most commonly offered in outpatient settings.” This type of facility allows the patient to come and go between treatments. They usually visit once a day at first, receive their treatments, and go about their lives. For teens who are still in school and have a strong social support system (family, friends, etc), outpatient facilities can be very beneficial.
  • Inpatient facilities
    • These facilities are often meant for those with extreme psychiatric severity and/or no strong support system at home. Teens who are addicted to extremely potent drugs (like meth and heroin) may also need to stay at a 24-hour inpatient facility.

Either way you choose, the facility should be the best one for your child, somewhere they feel comfortable attending. If they are able to weigh in on the decision, they should. Both types of facilities, however, use the same basic types of treatment when it comes to drug addiction.


“Counseling––individual and/or group––and other behavioral therapies are the most commonly used forms of drug abuse treatment” to help teens move on from their drug abuse habits and addictions. In fact, there are many different kinds of therapy utilized in formal drug abuse and addiction treatment. Some work better for other drug abuse syndromes while some may just be better tolerated by the the patient.

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
    • CBT strategies are based on the theory that learning processes play a critical role in the development of problem behaviors like drug abuse. ” Teens will learn in CBT treatment how to look at their drug abuse in a new way, how to identify triggers, and how to deal with cravings.
  • Contingency management (CM)
    • In CM, adolescents can earn incentives for drug free activities and prizes as a reward for abstinence. Usually combined with other treatments, CM can be very effective for teens.
  • Motivational enhancement therapy (MET)
    • “MET is a counseling approach that helps adolescents resolve their ambivalence about engaging in treatment and quitting their drug use.” This is especially helpful for teens who do not want to receive treatment, as the counselor will respond in a calm, non-confrontational way in order to help the teen relax and be more open to treatment.
  • Multidimensional Family Therapy
    • This type of therapy was “developed for adolescents with drug abuse problems––as well as their families.” It is designed to help improve the functioning of the family as a whole while also focusing on the reasons behind the adolescent’s drug abuse. Because family is usually so closely tied into these situations, multidimensional family therapy can be extremely necessary and beneficial during teen drug abuse treatment.


Medication is the other type of treatment most commonly used for teen drug abuse, but more of the emphasis is placed on behavioral therapy. Relying on drugs to treat addiction or abuse syndromes is not as viable as giving the individual the tools to change their behavior and a new perspective on their abuse.

Still, medication is often necessary to curb withdrawal symptoms, help fight cravings, and stabilize the patient for the ability to attend therapy sessions. Medication and behavioral therapy, especially when combined, are important elements of an overall therapeutic process that often begins with detoxification, followed by relapse prevention.”

What Should I Do?

Ideally, all parents want to shield their children from drug abuse and the physical and psychological issues that can be caused by it. Make sure you discuss drug abuse and what the possible consequences are in order to help prevent it in your child. If you are concerned that your child is already abusing drugs, do the following:

  • Look for the signs of drug abuse.
  • Listen for the symptoms.
  • Seek treatment for your child.
  • Try to be honest but always supportive.
  • Remember that drug abuse and addiction are treatable problems and, with the right steps, your child will get better.