There are many different reasons why young people experiment with drugs or alcohol. Experimental use does not necessarily mean that they will go on to develop problematic substance use but, for some young people, early use is a risk factor for developing more serious substance misuse issues.
These risks also increase during times of difficulty and change: such as moving schools, or parental divorce, for example. It is important to take into account that although there can be signs that your child may be using drugs or alcohol, some of these signs may be normal teenage behaviour. The challenge for the parent is to distinguish between what is normal and what may be an indicator of problematic drug or alcohol use.
Physical signs of drug or alcohol use
- Bloodshot eyes with pupils larger, or smaller, than usual
- Changes in appetite, or sleep pattern
- Sudden weight loss, or gain
- Change in physical appearance: such as less attention to personal hygiene, and not changing clothes
- Unusual smells on breath, body, or clothing
- Shakiness, slurred speech and clumsiness
- Periods of unusual hyperactivity, agitation or giddiness
- Appearing spaced out
- Lack of motivation
- Appearing to be more fearful, anxious, or paranoid, for no apparent reason
- Mood swings
Behavioural signs of drug use
- Skipping classes; deteriorating work at school; suddenly starting to get into trouble at school
- Unexplained need for money; missing money, valuables or possessions; stealing money
- Engaging in secretive, or suspicious, behaviour
- Acting uncharacteristically: such as appearing withdrawn, isolated, angry or depressed
- Sudden changes of friends, hangouts and hobbies; loss of interests in old hobbies; lying about interests/friends
- Demanding more privacy; locking doors; avoiding eye contact
- Getting into trouble/fights/illegal activities.
When you think your child has a drug or alcohol problem
This can be very distressing and can make parents feel angry, upset and frightened. It is important to remain calm when you talk to your child about your concerns. Make it clear that you are concerned because you care about them, as it is important that your child feels supported.
Helping your child
- Don’t attempt to punish, threaten or bribe. Make sure they know you love them and are proud of them. Praise them for what they do well, and encourage them to try new things.
- Avoid trying to be a martyr. Avoid emotional appeals that may only increase feelings of guilt and increase the likelihood of the child/young person using drugs or alcohol
- Don’t cover up or make excuses for them. Don’t shield them from the negative consequences of their behaviour
- Don’t argue with the person. If you suspect that they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, let them know you are concerned about them, and are there if they need you.
- Don’t feel guilty or responsible for another’s behaviour. If your child is having problems, don’t be too hard on yourself or blame yourself.