Signs Your Teen is Struggling With Substance Abuse

While opioid use is on the rise, marijuana and alcohol are still top substances of choice for teenagers. Here, the director of the Macomb County Office of Substance Abuse details the top signs to look for.

The teen years are tough, and as teens are discovering themselves, they can sometimes pick up some dangerous habits – like substance use. 

“These days, some of the most commonly used substances with teens include marijuana and alcohol,” says Helen Klingert, Director of the Macomb County Office of Substance Abuse, which is a division of Macomb County Community Mental Health. While opioid use is increasing, marijuana and alcohol are the substances of choice among teens today, and use typically ramps up around 14 to 16 years old.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, half of ninth through 12th grade students have reported using marijuana, while two-thirds of 12th graders have tried alcohol and 2 in 10 reported using prescription medicine without a prescription.

It’s a huge problem – one that can have major consequences long-term. If you think your teen could be struggling with substance abuse, read on for some signs and tips.

Behavioral signs

“Many times you may see that there has been a change in their mood or the way that they’re presenting, or you may see a change in their social situation,” Klingert says.

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Are your teen’s friends changing? Are they hanging out with different people than they did in the past?

Depending on the substance, she says, you can see vastly different behaviors. In some cases, an individual under the influence might speak louder, seem happier than normal or be very outspoken. On the flipside, a teen under the influence of other substances can become quiet or withdrawn, or even keep to themselves in their room at home.

Pattern changes or other significant changes could be signs, as well.

“Any one sign or symptom of itself doesn’t mean it’s substance use. It could mean many other things,” she says, but look at those factors together and keep a watchful eye.

Physical signs

The most obvious flags to look out for include smelling alcohol on your teen’s breath or smelling marijuana on his or her clothes. However, there are a number of additional signs to watch for including slurred speech or a change in a voice tone.

“Other physical signs could be bloodshot or glassy eyes or change in the size of the pupil,” Klingert says – and because of that, sometimes they might avoid eye contact.

They may seem drowsy, uncoordinated or clumsy. If the issue is ongoing, a teen might experience weight loss or even changes in hygiene habits – not paying as much attention to personal hygiene.

Keep an eye out for environmental clues, too, including if money goes missing in the home, if you see drug paraphernalia – including pipes or baggies – or if alcohol bottles go missing from your home.

Addressing the issue

Talking early and often about substance use is key, Klingert says.

“I think having a conversation is always important, and one that expresses concern,” she says. “It’s a very difficult time. Teens are trying to find their place within their social network or find ways to deal with the struggles that they are experiencing, so coming from a place of concern as a parent is really important – and trying to engage the youth in that communication with you, so it’s just not a one-sided lecture.”

Have that conversation multiple times and let children know what you think and feel about substance use. This lays a foundation for what the norm is for your family. 

“Adolescents still look at their parents as role models,” she says. “Maybe not as obviously as when they were younger, but setting the family values is important.”

Teach children how to say “no” in certain situations, and ask them questions like, “What would you do if someone offered you a beer?” Asking specific questions and even role playing gives kids a chance to think through what they’d do.

If your teen does, in fact, have a substance use disorder, Klingert suggests contacting the Macomb County Community Mental Health Access Center at 586-948-0222. While this is open to Macomb County residents only, Klingert notes that each county has an access center that can help families. These centers can connect families to early intervention services, outpatient treatment counseling, residential treatment services and more.

“Calling and getting help is very important, because the sooner you address an issue, the easier it is to treat,” she says. “If we let things go too long, it just gets more difficult and has more potential consequences the longer use goes on.”

Content brought to you by Macomb County Community Mental Health, Office of Substance Abuse.  For more information, visit mccmh.net.