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Our Favourite Ways to Recognise Drug Use in Teens

Suspecting your child of using illicit substances is a nightmare for any parent, so we've asked the experts for some tips on how to identify the problem, and what steps to take


Every week we discuss a subject or topic that relates to children, whether it's excursions, activities or parenting advice on a more serious topic. This week we're tackling an issue that seems to be on a few parents' minds.

Teenagers and drugs

You asked the question, so we teamed up with Ashley Jones - an expert from My Family Care - to find out how to recognise possible drug use in teens, and offer some advice on how to deal with the situation.

Drug and alcohol use in society has become more pervasive in recent years, especially amongst teenagers and young adults. For many parents, the thought of their child being lost to drugs is a nightmare.

50% of teenagers experiment with drugs

It's important to keep things in perspective and to remind ourselves that, while over 50% of teenagers will experiment at some time with illicit substances, very few of those go on to become problem drug users.

The most effective parental approach to this issue is to keep an open and informed approach to the matter. This allows you as the parent to keep an eye on the situation, and monitor it for any developments that indicate whether the situation is deteriorating or starting to become more chaotic.

As with everything related to teens, there may be secondary explanation to some of the behaviours below as the teen years are not without their trying times. However, in combination they are a definite sign that you need to start paying attention and decide on a course of action.

Top 10 signs of drug use (what to look out for in teenagers)


Look for a sudden apathy regarding the person's appearance; drug abusers often don't take time for personal hygiene or appropriate clothing choices. Also check for a red face or flushed cheeks.

Personal habits

Pay attention to a change in personal habits. You may see the person clenching their teeth more than usual; the abuser may also smell funny, avoid eye contact, seem to be eating something constantly, and use a lot of mints or gum to cover up mouth odour.

Need for moneyTeenagers using drugs may be often short of cash

A person who is into drugs may be often short of cash and break curfews. If they have access to a vehicle, they may be involved in more accidents or have a number of unexplained scratches or dents.

Acting secretively

The person may start acting secretively, staying behind a locked door a great deal. They may leave the room to take phone calls, and go out more than usual.

Personal relationships

Watch for changes in how the person relates to friends and family. They may be withdrawn, uncommunicative, become angry over little things, or disappear for extended periods without explanation.

Changing friendship groups

Changes in friendship groups can occur, with a reticence to introduce you to new friends.

Changes in behaviour

A drug user may start acting in a way that is not normal for them, being obnoxious or loud, stumbling, slurring words, seem extremely tired, or have unexplained periods of elation.

Teenagers using drugs may lose interest in work or school activitiesLack of interest / motivation

They may lose interest in work or school activities. The user may skip work or school, start being late often, or just not care about their quality of work. Teachers or co-workers may start complaining about the way the person performs their job or relates to other people.

As their Parent or Guardian, you may be alerted by other people who suspect them of being high or intoxicated in school or at work.


Abusers suffer from many symptoms such as seizures, vomiting, depression, sweating, headaches, and nausea.

Physical signs

You may see someone abusing drugs:

  • Constantly wetting their lips
  • Excessively drinking water due to a dry mouth
  • Develop sores around the mouth
  • Experiencing nosebleeds
  • Have a constant runny nose
  • Have cuts and bruises
  • Experience unexplained accidents
  • Show sudden weight gain or loss.

What to do if you suspect teen drug use

Communicate calmly

If you suspect drug use, talk to them in a calm and loving way. Offer help and explain your concerns - it's important that they feel supported.

Lay down rules and consequences

Your teenager should understand that using drugs comes with specific consequences, but don't make hollow threats or set rules that you cannot enforce. Make sure your partner agrees with these rules and is prepared to enforce them as well.

Monitor your teenager's activity

Know where your teenager goes and who he or she hangs out with. It's also important to routinely check potential hiding places for drugs-in backpacks, between books on a shelf, and in DVD or make-up cases, for example.

Talk to your child about underlying issues

Drug use can be the result of other problems. Is your child having trouble fitting in? Has there been a recent major change, like a move or divorce, which is causing stress?

Get help

Teenagers often rebel against their parents but if they hear the same information from a different authority figure, they may be more inclined to listen. Try a sports coach, family doctor, drug counsellor, or respected family member or friend.

What NOT to do if you suspect teen drug use

  • Get angry
  • Attempt to punish, threaten, bribe, or preach
  • Avoid emotional appeals that may only increase feelings of guilt and the compulsion to use drugs
  • Blame yourself
  • Stick your head in the sand and ignore the problem - it won't go away, and may not be something they just 'grow out of'.

Get help and discuss teenage drug use

If you are concerned and wish to discuss the matter, there are agencies that can help. You may want to have a confidential discussion with your GP or contact the National Helpline FRANK.

Alternatively, your Local Authority will be able to signpost you to local resources that offer help and support for people with drug or alcohol issues. Your Local Authority, in partnership with your Local Health Provider, will also offer a full range of drug and alcohol treatment options for those that need them, ranging from detoxification through to full residential rehabilitation.

Other resources if you're worried about teenagers and drugs

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