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Substance Use Disorder: Dealing With Teen Substance Use

Overview

If your teen is using alcohol, tobacco, or other substances, take it seriously. One of the most important things you can do is to talk openly with your teen about the problem. Urge your teen to be open too.

Try not to use harsh, judging words. In most cases, an angry face-to-face meeting will push a teen away. Be as supportive as you can during this time.

If you don't know what to do or if you don't feel comfortable, ask for help. Talk to your teen's doctor, a pediatrician, a psychologist, or a psychiatrist.

Finding signs of substance use at an early age is important. That's because early substance use may:

  • Increase the risk that your child keeps using substances and has a substance use disorder later on.
  • Affect your child's growth and development, memory, and learning.
  • Make car crashes more likely.
  • Lead to risky behaviors like having sex without a condom. This can lead to pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.
  • Increase the risk of anxiety, depression, and suicide.
  • Make it hard for your child to find their identity, build relationships, and do well in school.

How to recognize and deal with teen substance use

Looking for signs

Sometimes it's hard to tell if a teen is using alcohol or drugs. Experts recommend that parents look for a pattern or a number of changes in appearance, behavior, and attitude, not just one or two of the changes listed here.

Signs that a teen may be using substances include a:

Change in appearance.

Examples include:

  • Less attention paid to dressing and grooming.
  • Loss of appetite or unexplained weight loss.
  • Red and glassy eyes, and frequent use of eyedrops and breath mints.
  • "Track marks" where drugs have been injected into veins.
Change in behavior.

Examples include:

  • Decreased attendance and performance at school.
  • Loss of interest in school, sports, or other activities.
  • Repeated health complaints, such as being overly tired.
  • Newly developed secrecy, or deceptive or sneaky behavior.
  • Withdrawal from family and friends.
  • New friends and reluctance to introduce them.
  • Lying or stealing.
Change in attitude.

Examples include:

  • Disrespectful behavior.
  • A mood or attitude that is getting worse.
  • Lack of concern about the future.

Talking to a teen who is experimenting

If you think that your teen has started to experiment with alcohol or other substances, don't ignore it. It's important to talk openly with your teen about your concerns.

  • Ask about use.

    Find out what substances your teen has tried.

    • Talk about what effects the substances had and how your teen feels about substance use.
    • Listen closely to what your teen liked about using the substance and why.
    • Ask your teen about peers who provided drugs and peers your teen has used drugs with.
  • Share your concerns.

    Talk about your concerns, not only about drug and alcohol use but about other problems that may be going on. For example, there may be issues with school performance.

  • Review expectations.
    • Talk with your teen about the family rules concerning substance use. If you don't want your teen to use any substances (including tobacco), make that clear.
    • Make a written plan with your teen. Include how your teen will handle risky situations and the consequences of breaking the rules.
  • Ask your teen to stop.

    Ask that your teen stop using substances. This is especially important if there is a strong family history of substance use.

  • Provide education and support.

    This is an important time to provide more information on substance use. You or your doctor may provide this. Talk about the immediate effects and consequences of using alcohol or other drugs. Don't talk only about long-term health problems.

    If your teen is at high risk for substance use, look for a community program that can help your teen learn skills to avoid substance use.

Taking action

If you think that your teen is using alcohol or any other substance regularly, take action. This use is serious. It should not be denied or minimized. Frequent or regular use of a substance can quickly lead to substance use disorder.

Use these tips to help your teen.

  • Investigate.

    Look for evidence of your teen's use. For example, your teen may be having problems in school, at home, with relationships, or with the law related to substance use. If you suspect a specific drug, get information about that drug and its effects.

  • Choose a good time to talk.

    Wait until your teen isn't impaired to talk about using a substance. Talking to someone when they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol usually doesn't work. And it may make the situation worse.

  • Ask about use.
    • Find out what substances your teen is using. Ask how often, in what setting, and where your teen is getting them. Your teen may be reluctant to give you all this information.
    • Try to stay calm. An angry meeting may push your teen away.
  • Have an evaluation.

    Talk with a doctor about assessing your teen's substance use. Your teen may need treatment. Early treatment may prevent substance use disorder in the future.

  • Get support.

    You may find it helpful to join a support group for family members of people with a substance use disorder. One example is Al-Anon. There are Al-Anon meetings specifically for parents. These meetings include discussions about family effects of substance use.

    Substance use is a family disease. All family members are affected by it, and they need some form of help to change the ways they react to the person who has a substance use disorder.

Credits

Current as of: November 8, 2021

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
Patrice Burgess MD - Family Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Peter Monti PhD - Alcohol and Addiction
Christine R. Maldonado PhD - Behavioral Health

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