Suspect Your Teen Is Using Drugs?

How can you tell if your child is using drugs? It is difficult because changes in mood or attitudes, unusual temper outbursts, changes in sleeping habits, changes in hobbies or other interests are common in teens. These changes often signal that something troubling is going on and may involve alcohol or drugs.

Signs and Symptoms:

1. Negative changes in schoolwork; missing school or declining grades.

2. Increased secrecy about possessions or activities.

3. Use of incense, room deodorant or perfume to hide smoke or chemical odors.<

4. Subtle changes in conversations with friends, e.g., more secretive, using “coded” language.

5. New friends.

6. Change in clothing choices — new fascination with clothes that highlight drug use.

7. Increase in borrowing money.

8. Evidence of drug paraphernalia, such as pipes, rolling papers.

9. Evidence of inhaling products and accessories, such as hairspray, nail polish, correction fluid, paper bags and rags, common household products.

10. Bottles of eyedrops, which may be used to mask bloodshot eyes or dilated pupils.

11. New use of mouthwash or breath mints to cover up the smell of alcohol.

12. Missing prescription drugs — especially narcotics and mood stabilizers.

These changes often signal that something troubling is going on and may involve alcohol or drugs.

What Do You Do and When?

When you have a suspicion, what do you do? First, learn as much as you can. Check out or for information on drug and alcohol use by teens. Or, you can call the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information (NCADI) for free pamphlets and fact sheets. They’ll even send the information in a plain envelope, if you wish, for confidentiality. They can be reached toll-free at 1-800-788-2800. Know that there is help available for you and your child. In most communities, you can get help from your pediatrician, nurse, or other health care provider, a counselor at your child’s school, or your faith community.

The next thing you can do is sit down and talk with your child. Be sure to have the conversation when all of you are calm and have plenty of time. This isn’t an easy task. Your feelings may range from anger to guilt, or you may feel that you have “failed” because your kid is using drugs. This isn’t true. By staying involved, you can help them stop using drugs and make choices that will make a positive difference in their lives. Tell your child what you see and how you feel about it. Be specific about the things you have observed that cause concern.

Show them that you care for their well-being and this is why you are trying to get to the bottom of their problem. Make it known that you found drug paraphernalia (or empty bottles or cans). Explain exactly how their behavior or appearance (bloodshot eyes, different clothing) has changed and why that worries you and affects the whole family. Tell them you’ve noticed that they have new friends that you don’t necessarily know or approve of. It is important to set clear ground rules in your family about drug and alcohol use — e.g., in this family, we don’t smoke marijuana — and to let your kids know that you will enforce these rules out of love and concern for them. Setting a firm rule of no drug use will help your child resist peer and other pressures to use drugs.

Have this discussion without getting mad or accusing your child of being stupid or bad or an embarrassment to the family. Knowing that kids are naturally private about their lives, try to find out what’s going on in your child’s life. What is he doing? If your child is using drugs, find out why. When was the last time he used? Did he do anything that he regrets? Try not to make the discussion an inquisition; simply try to connect with your teen. Find out if friends or others offered your child drugs, like meth, at a party or school. Did they try it just out of curiosity, or did they take the initiative to use marijuana or alcohol for some other reason? That alone will be a signal to your child that you take your responsibility as a parent seriously and that you will exercise your parental rights.


1. Tell your son or daughter you LOVE him/her and that you are worried that he/she might be using drugs or alcohol;

2. Say that: You KNOW that drugs may seem like the thing to do, but doing drugs can have serious consequences;

3. It makes you FEEL worried and concerned about them when they do drugs;

4. You are there to LISTEN to them;

5. You WANT them to be a part of the solution;

6. What you will do to HELP them.

You’re not helping your child if you make excuses when you know your child misses school or family functions because of “not feeling well,” especially when you suspect something else is at play. Take the next step: Get more information and talk to your child. When parents and children take time to talk, life can become easier, healthier, and more pleasing for the entire family. In the process, you’ll be doing your part in keeping your child drug-free. Kids who learn from their parents about the dangers of underage drinking, marijuana and other harmful substances are less likely to use those substances. When do you take action? Sooner rather than later is always the best, even if you’re not sure they are using. You can immediately begin to more closely monitor your child’s activities. Have many conversations.

Ask why he/she is using drugs. Reinforce the importance of family. Get to know your kid’s friends and their parents. Remember a saying in Spanish that says: Tell me who your friends are and I will tell you who you are. When you get a better idea of the situation, then you can decide what the next steps should be. These could include setting new rules and consequences that are reasonable and enforceable — such as a new, earlier curfew, no cell phone or computer privileges for a period of time, or less time hanging out with friends. You may want to get them involved in positive new activities that help them meet new people in settings that are drug-free. They can also spend time with their families, such as helping their grandparents with errands like grocery shopping. For more information about how to address your teen’s alcohol and drug use and how to set and enforce rules, go to

Ask your child if there is someone they trust or feel comfortable talking to. They shouldn’t necessarily make the final decision, but they are more likely to be an active participant if they have a say in what happens. Take your child to the doctor or talk to the school nurse and ask him or her about screening your child for drugs and alcohol. This may involve the health professional asking your child a simple question, or it may involve a drug screen. Sharing your concerns with your health professional can help you get the advice and assistance you need. If you have an appointment with your child’s doctor, call ahead to make time to discuss this issue. It may also help to talk to other parents who have experienced what you are going through. You may feel as though you are the only family dealing with this issue, but know that there are parent support groups in your community or you can speak to extended family, neighbors and friends for their support.


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