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Warning Signs of Substance Use and Abuse in Teens

National Recovery Month is well underway, with organizations and individuals across the country continuing to work diligently to face the challenges of addiction and substance abuse. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC Data 2017), there are 192 drug overdose deaths every day. In a time where addiction is often stigmatized and substance abuse is increasing every year—reaching epidemic proportions—the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has designated September as a time for hope and a renewal of our commitment to celebrate the potential for recovery and to support those who are actively engaged in their own recovery and well-being. As their tagline states, “Prevention works. Treatment is effective. People recover.”

In my career working to improve the lives of children, teens and adults, I’ve repeatedly witnessed the devastating effects that pre-adolescent and adolescent substance use can have on a person’s development, behavior and life success.  And the impact extends to the entire family. Teens have long been seen as vulnerable to peer pressure and other factors that can lead to drug use; a troubling trend is now showing up, with addiction becoming more prominent in children who have not reached their teenage years.

According to the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, nearly 2.3 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 reported using alcohol in the past month. In the same survey, about 1.9 million youths in this age group reported using an illicit drug in the past month. But the real question is what can we do to be interrupters in this horrific and deadly increasing trend?  How can we support and build on the innate resilience of children to break this cycle?

Not every experiment with drugs by a pre-teen or teenager results in addiction. But it’s clear that if substance abuse becomes a pattern, that young person will need help to break the cycle through intervention and treatment. For that reason, it’s important for parents and others who work closely with children and teens to know and recognize the most common signs of substance abuse.

Some of the physical signs of substance abuse include:

  • Unusual smells on breath
  • Extreme hyperactivity
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Runny nose and/or hacking cough
  • Puffy face, blushing, or paleness
  • Slowed or staggering walk
  • Poor physical coordination
  • Cold, sweaty palms and/or trembling hands
  • Possible injection sites on the skin


Behavioral signs are also common. Keep an eye out for:

  • Moodiness, irritability, or nervousness
  • Excessive need for privacy; unreachable,
  • Difficulty in paying attention or forgetfulness
  • Drop in grades at school or performance at work
  • Skips school or is late for school
  • Sudden oversensitivity, temper tantrums, or resentful behavior
  • Presence of unusual number of spray cans in the trash
  • Stealing money

Obviously, not every child or teen displaying one or more of these signs is addicted to alcohol or drugs. However, if a young person exhibits troubling patterns that resemble those above, it’s a good idea to seek out more information, if only to rule out substance abuse as a cause.

SAMHSA’s Recovery Month toolkit contains a wealth of helpful resources. Some of the most relevant for teens or adults concerned about teens are listed below, with descriptions cited directly from the SAMHSA toolkit. They include:

As the statistics above show, it’s all too common for young people to experiment with drug use, and all too common for them to end up abusing alcohol or drugs and getting trapped in the cycle of addiction. However, as Recovery Month efforts show, treatment is also common – and so is recovery.

Check out the #RecoveryMonth hashtag on Twitter for some inspiring stories, and check back on our blog for our continuing Recovery Month series the rest of September.