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Is My Teenager a Substance Abuser?

Signs that kids may be developing drug or alcohol problems

Writer: Alan Ravitz, MD, MS

Clinical Expert: Alan Ravitz, MD, MS

en Español

While we would all feel more comfortable if teenagers abstained from the use of alcohol, pot, and other recreational drugs—all of which are illegal for minors—realistic parents know that most kids will be exposed to them, and many will partake. So how do we know when kids are slipping into territory that’s dangerous, and very difficult to return from?

Some drugs should be immediate cause for concern—heroin, opiate pain killers, cocaine, and methamphetamine. In the case of alcohol and pot, which in some high schools are ubiquitous, signs that a child might be developing a serious problem include the following:

  • Your child is frequently intoxicated, uses substances before or during school, or conceals alcohol or drugs in their room.
  • They have been skipping school frequently or their performance in school has declined.
  • They have changed friends, or dropped activities and former interests.
  • They have been exhibiting dangerous behavior like getting in fights or driving while impaired.
  • They have developed a tolerance for their substance of choice, so they have to take greater quantities to obtain the desired effect.
  • They exhibit withdrawal symptoms if they’re not drinking or using.
  • They have tried and failed to cut down or control their drug or alcohol consumption.
  • They have a psychiatric disorder that might be exacerbated by substance use—stimulants can induce manic episodes, and marijuana, alcohol, and opiates can lead to depression in kids who are already vulnerable.
  • They’re taking medication for another psychiatric disorder; drug or
    alcohol use will interfere with its effectiveness, since the medicine and dosage have been calculated for a normal brain, not one altered by other substances.
This article was last reviewed or updated on October 30, 2023.