Signs of Drug & Alcohol Abuse in Teens and Young Adults

Substance use often begins in adolescence, and the scientific evidence is clear — addictive substances cannot be safely used by teenagers or young adults. Addiction in these years can have major impacts for two reasons:

  1. The areas of the brain that are needed for decision-making, judgment, impulse control, emotion and memory are not fully developed until the mid-twenties. This makes young people more likely to take risks compared to adults. Risk-taking can include experimenting with tobacco, alcohol and other drugs.
  2. When the brain is still developing, addictive substances physically alter its structure and function faster and more intensely than occurs in adults. These effects interfere with brain development, which can affect the user’s judgment and increase addiction’s risks.

How can I tell if my child is using substances?

Teens and young adults who are using substances will often have some or several of the following signs and symptoms:

Physical and emotional symptoms

  • Unexplained, extreme mood swings
  • Fatigue with a noticeable change in sleep patterns
  • Dilated pupils and bloodshot eyes
  • Loss of appetite and/or periods of binge eating
  • Changes in dress or appearance
  • Threats or attempts to commit suicide
  • Uncharacteristic nosebleeds or unexplained burns

Social indicators

  • Changes in friends, including secret calls and visits
  • Avoiding contact with family members and others who express concern
  • Losing interest in hobbies and activities
  • Attempting to keep actions and activities secret
  • Defensiveness regarding actions and activities
  • Reluctance to introduce new friends to the family

Family and home issues

  • Refusing to respect curfews and other house rules
  • Withdrawal from family activities
  • Isolation from family members and increased absence from home
  • Collecting alcohol and drug paraphernalia
  • Lying or providing unrealistic explanations to parents
  • Using air fresheners or breath mints to cover scents
  • Running away from home

School problems

  • Missing excessive time from school
  • Failure to turn in assignments
  • Sleeping in class
  • Persistent behavioral problems
  • Poor grades
  • Increased tardiness
  • Reduced interest in extracurricular activities

Financial concerns

  • Stealing money or objects from family and friends
  • Unexplained shortages of money
  • Lost or missing possessions
  • Alcohol that goes missing in the home
  • Lack of tangible evidence of how money is spent (such as clothes, music or other specific items)
  • Unexplained amounts or sources of money (possible indicator that teen is dealing drugs)

Legal problems

  • Increased involvement with police, such as having authorities appear at parties/social functions
  • Arrests for alcohol or other drug-related charges

Does my child need help?

The disease of addiction can be hard to recognize, especially in a growing child or teenager. Depending on the number of signs and symptoms you observe, it may be hard to know if this is just a phase or period of experimentation — or if your child is on a path to addiction. Making it even more difficult, your child may insist that there is no problem at all.

You want to trust your child, and it’s easy to second-guess yourself. All parents go through this. However, if there is any question in your mind, it’s always best to have a professional evaluation. Trained counselors will give you the answers you need and you, your child and your family will be able to move toward a healthy life.

Rosecrance provides free, confidential consultations along with educational and prevention services to help teens and their families. You can contact one of our many drug and alcohol abuse treatment centers located in and around Chicago, Central Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin by calling (866) 330-8729.

You can also get additional, detailed information at the links below: