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5 Warning Signs Your Child Is Using Drugs or Alcohol

It could be teen angst, but it could be much more. Know the signs that your child might be using drugs and alcohol, and how to help.

Your child has just slammed the door in your face. Again. He’s been more irritable than usual, but is it just teen moodiness, or something more? If you’re concerned your child is abusing drugs or alcohol, it’s important to observe and weigh the signs. While mood swings, lashing out, grogginess and general rebellion can be signs of normal adolescent behavior, they also can be indicative of drug use. The key is to keep track of emotional and physical behaviors, and determine whether these behaviors are getting worse and interfering with your child’s life. Write down what you’re seeing, and keep a log with the dates and levels of severity. Look for these 5 indicators to determine if your child needs help.

A Change in the Weather

If you child’s emotional temperament swings wildly between happiness and sadness, and if he or she has become emotionally withdrawn and unavailable, it could be cause for worry—especially if these sweeping mood swings have consistently occurred over a brief period of time. Often, a child using drugs will suffer highs and lows, especially when crashing from something like amphetamines, which can cause severe irritability. Keep an eye on your child’s emotional output: Is she a devoted daughter one moment and disrespectful the next? Was he at one time happy and ready to chat about anything, and now appears to be closed-off and secretive? Take note of the frequency and severity of these behaviors: Emotional changes and mood swings can be some of the most crucial signs of substance abuse, though they can also be misinterpreted.

An Eye on Performance

Has your straight-A-student’s average plummeted? Does she stand up her friends after school? If your child’s motivation has suddenly been zapped, it’s possible that he or she is getting involved in substance use. Pay attention to academic performance through report cards, exam scores, and the level of studying and care your child puts into his or her school assignments and extracurricular activities. If your child has consistently missed soccer practice or unexplainably dropped out of the spring musical, it could be cause for concern. Meet with one of your child’s teachers, coaches or mentors to discuss her behaviors and performance, and determine if action is needed.

Follow the Money

One of the cold, hard facts about using drugs and alcohol is that it requires money. Has your child been asking for more cash lately? Does he always complain about not having enough money, despite working after school? Keep an eye on your child’s spending habits to see exactly where his income—be it from allowance, a job or even holidays checks from relatives—is going. It is cause for alarm if money or valuables go missing from your own home. Be wary of mysteriously disappearing items that can be sold for drug money, and of course keep tabs on any alcohol or prescription substances in your household.

Taking a Look

Any growing child’s appearance is going to change: As children age, they go through biological shifts and physical transformations. And their tastes in clothes, accessories and makeup is likely to change just as quickly as their favorite band. However, it may be a more serious issue if your child uncharacteristically begins to show apathy about how he or she looks. With their busy schedules and long days, many kids can have periods of looking unkempt or sloppy, but if your child stops showering, quits brushing his teeth and stops caring about his own cleanliness, take note. Keep your eyes open for the visual signs of drug use: red, dry eyes; bruising; scabbing; scratch marks; burns caused by lighters, pipes or joints; and track marks (small bruises or puncture wounds, typically lining the forearm, which indicate needle use).

Getting Physical

If a child begins to exhibit a number of health-related issues such as nosebleeds, extreme weight loss, chronic oversleeping and deterioration of coordination, something is probably wrong. Because the physical manifestations of drug use are just as varied as the substances themselves, it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint any one health-related side effect that could provide an answer. Maintain an awareness of your child’s health and track major changes or new onsets such as seizures, blackouts or rashes, and alert your child’s healthcare provider right away to get help.

One of the most important things you can do as a parent is talk openly with your child about drugs and alcohol use and the risks associated with it. Let your child know that you are always there to talk in a casual but caring manner. A good place to start is to ask your child if his or her friends do drugs, and if the answer is yes, ask your child what he or she thinks about it. This is an excellent way to get a dialogue going. If you do see these warning signs, there is help. Contact your child’s pediatrician right away for resources in your area.

About the author: Micah Robbins is a community substance use prevention leader, as well as a recovery and treatment advocate. He has 23 years of experience and is a proud part of the Beach House Center for Recovery team. In the community, he works with the Palm Beach County Substance Awareness Coalition facilitating teen development and advocating for the recovery community.

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