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Is Your Teen Abusing Drugs or Alcohol?

Suddenly, your teenager is having trouble in school. Relationships with teachers, friends, siblings—and you—are falling apart. Your child has a new set of friends and no longer seems interested in favorite activities.

A frightening question weighs on your mind: "Is my child experimenting with drugs?"

If the answer is yes, you need to act quickly to help your child. But first you need to know for sure.

Besides having trouble with school and relationships, teenagers taking drugs may display emotional extremes with irritability, anger and changes in sleep patterns.

Changes in behavior, a change in grades, a change in how they dress, or a sudden change in friends—those kinds of changes may indicate the beginnings of alcohol or drug abuse. Listen to teachers and the teenager's friends.

A screening test

If you're convinced your child has a problem, talk to your child's health care provider about an appointment for an evaluation and possibly performing a drug screen. A refusal from your teen often is an implied admission of drug abuse.

Parents can use several strategies to help their teenagers kick a drug habit or avoid experimenting in the first place:

  • Address the situation head on. Do not make excuses or enable the drug use. Make it very clear that this behavior is not acceptable, and provide consequences for your child's drug use.

  • Seek professional intervention immediately. Drug and alcohol abuse is a health problem, and you can quickly begin family counseling to determine if there are any underlying problems. If you are considering counseling, your health care provider may be able to refer you to a counselor.

  • If your teenager isn't experimenting with drugs, provide encouragement and positive reinforcement. Show your kids that you respect their good judgment by rewarding them with more privileges and increased responsibilities.

It is important not to panic at the first sign of alcohol and drug use, as this may increase the divide between parent and teen. It is better to engage them in a mature dialogue, treating them as if they were adults with their own opinions, while reinforcing that with adulthood comes the responsibility of health, safety, and appropriate behavior.

Look for changes

How can a parent know if a teenager is drifting into substance abuse? Look for changes in everyday functioning. Behavioral changes that are interfering with school work, social activities or behavior at home may be due to substance abuse.

Warning signs may include:

  • A sudden plunge in grades or loss of interest in school activities.

  • A rapid, unexplained change of friends.

  • Sudden or unusual mood changes, especially depression, anger, and aggression.

  • Physical signs of drug or alcohol dependence, such as intoxication or hangovers.

What should you do if you suspect the worst?

Remain calm and in firm control of your own feelings.

If you do find out that your teen is drinking or abusing drugs, let the teenager know that this behavior is illegal and unsafe—and that it must stop immediately. If the abuse doesn't stop, then it's time to consider seeking professional counseling.