Recognising signs of teenage substance abuse

Recognising signs of teenage substance abuse

This article outlines the signs parents can look out for in teenage substance abuse and includes the steps you can take if you discover your teen are using drugs.

Teenage substance abuse signs and symptoms

Spot some of the teenage substance abuse signs and symptoms before it’s too late

Whether parents are aware or oblivious to it, all tweens/teens are under pressure to use drugs/ alcohol. As parents, it is natural to want to believe our kids and trust they will make right choices. At same time we need to face the very real possibility of teen experimentation and/or teenage substance abuse. Knowing the risk factors plus getting involved is the best way in helping your teen stay safe.

A very common myth is that experimentation is a normal part of adolescence. However, some people challenges this idea and go as far as saying that this is not the regular or normal right of passage. Hence, parents you need to face the fact that drugs and alcohol abuse are widely used among teens — and yes! it could even be yours!

According to the National Health Survey 2004 conducted by the Health Promotion Board Singapore, binge drinking is defined as consumption of 5 or more alcoholic drinks over a short period of time. The survey showed that the frequency of binge drinking was 15.6% in males with the largest proportion of males and females who binge drink falling within the 18-29 age group.

Domestic abuse

Psychiatrist Joseph Lee, M.D., adolescent addiction specialist at Hazelden’s Center for Youth and Families, In the USA, says, “You don’t have to be an addict to experience problems from substance use. Many teens suffer terrible consequences from drugs and alcohol simply by experimenting. Accidents, deaths, unintentional overdoses, sexual trauma, violence and legal issues are a few of these pitfalls.”

The dramatic changes in a child’s mood and behaviour brought about by adolescnce, makes it even more difficult for parents to spot the signs of substance abuse. However, if and when you as a parent observes more than a few of the following signs, its time for you to take action!

Here are some of the common signs that your child may be undergoing teenage substance abuse:

  • Smell of alcohol or odour of marijuana
  • Frequently borrowing money/stealing
  • Showing defensiveness about activities/possessions and privacy
  • Unusual mood swings or temper outbursts
  • Obvious changes in eating, sleeping or behavioural habits
  • Decline in academic performance
  • Heavy use of perfumes, mouthwash or other scents (to hide smells)
  • Bedroom littered with burned matches, pipes or other paraphernalia pointing to drug usage
  • Changes in friend groups
  • Noticeable changes in personal appearance or hygiene
  • Depleting interest in usual activities or hobbies or social activities
  • Shows difficulty in concentrating
  • Frequent visits to doctors for medical issues and prescriptions

The earlier a parent responds to such signs, the better. Lee offers the following guidelines:

Set the expectations in your home
Research indicates that parental disapproval deters adolescent drug use. Remind your children that you expect them to avoid all alcohol or other drug use – period. Set clear rules around alcohol and other drug use.

“Parenting is about leadership and modeling in adolescence,” Lee says. “Don’t lose sight of the fact that you are incredibly influential at this time in their lives. You can be up front about your shared value system without being overbearing. Then model those values in your actions and words.”

Tertiary education

Talk to your teens 

Talk about it
Develop a culture of open communication in your home, regardless of the issue. That way, talking about drugs and alcohol won’t be awkward. If you suspect substance abuse, share your opinions but remember to avoide making judgments. Stick to the facts and stay calm.

Never have the conversation while your child is under the influence. Teens don’t process advice as well when they are emotionally charged. If tempers flare, wait till cooler heads prevail.

Take advantage of help
Parents you are not in this alone! Many professionals can help intervene with your child, such as a family doctor, therapist, school counselor or addiction counselor. In addition, you may turn to support groups for teenagers and their families who are in recovery from addiction.

“Parents are at their best when they are being parents,” Lee remarks. “Juggling the roles of parent, friend, and co-counselor can be difficult. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you feel stretched.”

Help your child create a plan for refusing drugs
The key is to come up with a plan that your teenager will actually utilise in a social setting where other kids are using drugs. Role play possible scenarios and offer help while encouraging good decision making. Of course, the best defense is prevention of teenage substance abuse.

Get to know your teen’s world
Stay actively involved in your teen’s life. Get to know his or her friends and their parents, and talk to their teachers. Peer pressure from a poor choice of friends can easily lead to substance abuse. Spend time each week to find out what your child is thinking, feeling and doing – and listen attentively without interruption.

The more resources you have the better the trust will be between you and your teen. They’ll also feel less intrusion if you are a natural part of their social life. You don’t have to be a helicopter parent to get results. Just stay tuned in.

The art of parenting a teenager is to be open, stay honest, keep relationship going no matter what. We at TheAsianParent wish that all you parents have a loving and ever-lasting relationship with your children.

Information adapted from Hazelden via


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Written by

Felicia Chin

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