Is my Teen at Risk of Becoming an Addict?

Is my Teen at Risk of Becoming an Addict?

Teens drinking“Is my teen at risk of becoming an addict?” This is a terrifying question and one that no parent wants to ask, and yet addiction continues to rear its ugly head among the nation’s teens and young adults. Chances are if you are reading this article, you have noticed changes in your teen that have led you to wonder about the possibility of alcohol or substance use. Unfortunately, you are not alone as the number of teens being introduced to drugs and alcohol continues to hold strong. An unfortunate reality of substance use among adolescents is that nine out of ten people who develop an addiction started drinking, smoking or using drugs by age 18, as reported by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA).

There are many opinions out there as to whether or not adolescent alcohol and substance experimentation and use is a normal part of growing up and maturing.  The fact of the matter is there is no crystal ball that will tell you whether the threat of your teenager becoming addicted is real or if she will escape her experimentation ‘phase’ with only minor bumps and bruises. There are, however, signs to look for that can help you distinguish if your adolescent in engaging in substance use and to what extent.  

What To Look For

Behavioral Signs

  • Skipping class, declining grades, trouble at school.
  • Loss of interest in extracurricular activities.
  • Missing money or borrowing money.
  • Withdrawn or secretive behaviors.
  • Changes in sleep patterns (excess energy or always tired)
  • Change in relationships, friends, activities, and hobbies.
  • Using perfume/cologne, air freshener to hide smell of smoke or drugs.Close-up portrait of a sad teen girl
  • Using eye drops to mask bloodshot eyes and dilated pupils.

Physical Signs

  • Significant change in appetite and/or weight (loss or gain).
  • Reduction in grooming habits.
  • Bloodshot eyes or pupils that are smaller or larger than normal.
  • Frequent nosebleeds could be related to snorted drugs.
  • Unusual smells on breath, body, or clothing.
  • Incoherent or slurred speech.

Psychological warning signs of alcohol or drug abuse

  • Unexplained change in personality and/or attitude.
  • Sudden mood changes, easily agitated, angry outbursts or laughing for no reason.
  • Lack of motivation and appears lethargic or “out of it”.
  • Appears fearful, withdrawn, anxious, or paranoid, with no apparent reason.

I See the Signs, Now What?


Steer away from the blame game and focus on the things you can change moving forward. There are steps you can take to help your teen.

As a parent, it can often be your first instinct to protect and punish as necessary. Unfortunately, that response is not well received by most teenagers and usually has the opposite effect. It is important to remember that even when you are less than impressed with the decisions your teenager is making, to treat him with respect and approach him from a place of love.

Teen and Mother talkingOne of the most important steps you can take in supporting your teenager is having an open dialog about his use and substance use in general. Be mindful that you are listening to what your teenager has to say about his experiences and the reasons for his use. It is important that you do not automatically offer negative judgment towards his decisions nor do you want to condone his use. This is a balancing act and one that will most likely require you to use all of the loving parenting skills you have developed up to this point.

By  listening and having an open dialog with your teen, you will have a clear view of what is driving his  use, allowing you the opportunity to offer support and seek appropriate help.

What Kind of Help is Out There?

There are various avenues you and your teen can turn to for help, from support groups to intensive inpatient treatment for your teen. It is important to receive a clear, professional assessment of your teens substance use prior to seeking treatment. Often if the level of care and the severity of the use do not coincide, the outcome tends to be more harmful than good. A professional will be able to direct you to the appropriate level of care.

It is imperative to research the various treatment options as well as to adhere to the recommendations of professionals in the field of substance use disorders. Treatment options can include, but are not limited to:

  • Individual and/or Family Counseling
  • Outpatient Treatment Services
  • Intensive Outpatient Treatment Services
  • Residential Treatment Services (usually around 28 days)
  • Intensive Residential Services (usually 28 – 90 days)
  • Transitional Residential Treatment Services
  • Peer Support Groups (not considered treatment)
    • Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Al-Anon for family members
    • Narcotics Anonymous (NA) and Nar-Anon for family members
    • Cocaine Anonymous (CA) and Co-Anon for family members
    • Crystal Meth Anonymous (CMA)

I included the option of Family Therapy as well as the support groups for families in a deliberate attempt to bring attention to the importance of your  involvement in the substance abuse treatment of your son or daughter. This is not an affliction where you can send your teen off to ‘get better’ and anxiously await his or her return. Your active involvement in treatment is imperative to a successful, long lasting recovery.

For the sake of your child – stay involved and stay informed!



Amber groves is a marriage and family counselor and addiction specialist at The Marriage and Family Clinic in Denver, CO. She helps couples, families and children to have the calm and peaceful life they want in their relationship and family. in her spare time, she is the mother of one busy toddler.

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