How to Tell If Your Child Has a Drug or Alcohol Problem

How to Tell If Your Child Has a Drug or Alcohol Problem

Joanna Conti
Originally Posted:
Sep 22, 2015


If you’re worried that your child may have a problem with drugs or alcohol, there’s a good chance your suspicions are correct.  While there are undoubtedly parents who worry unnecessarily, far more parents are clueless about how much and how often their kids are getting drunk or high.

The statistics on teen alcohol and drug use are scary.  According to the CDC’s 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance report, about 47% of 12th graders are drinking alcohol at least once per month, and 29.2% are binge drinking (having 5 or more drinks within a couple of hours) regularly.  In addition, 27.7% of 12th graders are using marijuana at least once per month and 21.3% have used a prescription drug (such as Oxycontin, Percocet, Vicodin, Codeine, Adderall, Ritalin or Xanax) that was not prescribed to them at least once.

For some parents, the warning signs are fairly obvious – your child comes home drunk or high, or you’ve found drug paraphernalia in their room.  However, the warning signs aren’t always as clear.  You know your child better than anyone, and you need to trust your instincts about whether they’re in trouble.

Many parents explain away the early signs of drug or alcohol problems by thinking it is just typical teenage behavior.  And, yes, if your son or daughter is being argumentative and distancing themselves from their parents, it could mean nothing.  However, major changes in interests, behavior, friends and appearance are likely to be a symptom of a deeper problem.   Here are some of the most common indicators of alcohol or drug abuse:

  • Changes in appetite, sleep patterns or general health:  Both sudden weight loss and weight gain can accompany heavy drug or alcohol use, as can a new and unexplained chronic cough.  Frequent nosebleeds could be related to snorting meth or cocaine.  Nodding off is a common side effect of opioid or heroin use.
  • Changes in interests and friends:   Has your child stopped playing a sport they loved or lost interest in a hobby or activity that used to engross them?  Have the friends they’re hanging around with changed dramatically?  Have they withdrawn from family relationships they used to value?  Any of these can indicate escalating drug or alcohol use.
  • Major drop in academic performance:  If your child’s grades have suddenly plummeted, this can be a sign that they are skipping class or have lost their ability to focus on their school work.
  • Changes in appearance:  A sharp decline in personal grooming, bloodshot or glassy eyes, or pupils that are smaller or larger than normal should all be cause for alarm.
  • Acting strange:  Sudden personality or mood changes, extreme emotional highs and lows, hyperactive or lethargic behavior, incoherent or slurred speech, sudden coordination issues, and shakes, tremors or seizures are strong indicators that something is wrong.
  • Suspicious behavior:  Are they engaging in secretive or suspicious behavior, such as locking doors and avoiding eye contact?  Are they staying out much later than normal or sneaking out of the house?
  • Unusual smells:  Do you sometimes notice strange smells on your child, his clothes, or in his room?  Are they using incense, perfume or air freshener to hide the smell of smoke or drugs?
  • Missing money, valuables or prescription drugs:  Most teenagers start using opiates by raiding their parent’s or a friend’s parent’s medicine cabinet.  Once their drug or alcohol use expands beyond what they can get for free, some kids start stealing to support their habit.

If any of these indicators applies to your son or daughter, please don’t ignore the problem.  Drug and alcohol abuse kills.  In the United States, an average of 368 people die of alcohol or drug abuse every single day. 

If you suspect your child is in danger, educate yourself, consider talking with a counselor experienced with addiction issues, and choose a quiet time to have a calm, serious, loving conversation with your child about their drug or alcohol use.  The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids has prepared an excellent, 11-page guide you may find helpful called Intervention eBook:  What to do if your child is drinking or using drugs.    


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