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Spot The Early Warning Signs of Teen Drug Abuse

Medically Reviewed by: Charley Allen

Table of Contents

male drug use

It’s almost a cliché at this point that teens tend to be unpredictable and emotional. They rebel against their parents and other authority figures. Teenagers’ brains go through many different changes during adolescence. Hormones tend to increase and brain development goes into overdrive. You can easily distinguish the early signs of teen drug abuse.

Teenagers also often find themselves having to cope with stressors that they were sheltered from as children, such as academic pressure, social pressure, and even sexual pressure. These changes can cause teenagers to behave impulsively and have dramatic mood swings.

For these reasons, it is sometimes difficult for parents and other caregivers to determine if their teen is abusing drugs or alcohol. Even the most keenly observant family members can be prone to misattributing bizarre behavior to hormones rather than substance abuse. 

It is very important to learn to recognize the signs of teen drug abuse, because the consequences for teens can be extremely damaging — and sometimes even fatal.

What is addiction?

Addiction takes place when a drug user develops a dependence on their substance of choice. This means that they need to continue taking the drug to avoid the painful experience of withdrawing from it. Dependence also involves a decreased sensitivity to the drug, which requires the drug user to take higher and higher quantities of it in order to achieve the desired effects. 

When addiction occurs, drug users find themselves unable to control their substance use. Even users who want to stop or decrease their use often find that they are simply unable to do so. This can be deeply demoralizing. 

Moreover, the uncontrollable drug and alcohol abuse can lead to extremely harmful consequences for the addict. This is particularly true for teenagers, who are preparing to enter the serious world of adults for the first time.

Risk Factors for Addiction in Teens


It is common for addicts to colloquially talk about having an “addictive personality.” In a sense, this expression does have a biological basis. Susceptibility to addiction does seem to run in families. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than half the risk of becoming a substance abuser can be attributed to genetics.


Peer pressure is another reason teenagers choose to drink or consume drugs. No matter what they believe about the evils of drugs, teenagers tend to be very influenced by their social groups. As a result, they might choose to use drugs against their better judgment as a way of fitting in.

Dual Diagnoses

“Dual diagnosis” is a term used by medical professionals to refers to individuals who have a substance abuse problem and a mental health disorder. The term implies that the two conditions influence each other. For example, a teenager suffering from depression might turn to alcohol to temporarily relieve some of the symptoms.

Early Use

Research has demonstrated that those who use substances earlier in their lives are more likely to become addicted later on. This is because developing brains are more impulsive — and also better at picking up new behaviors.

Drug of Choice

Some drugs are more addictive than others. Teenagers who use cocaine or heroin, for example, are far more likely to develop destructive addictive patterns than those who use marijuana.

Early Warning Signs of Teen Drug Abuse

When teenagers have a sudden change of behavior or mood swings, that is often cause for concern. A sudden bout of hostility or an unusual amount of fatigue can be a good reason to investigate further. Other common signs and symptoms of teen drug abuse include:

  • A change in peer group. When teenagers abandon old friends and start spending time with an entirely new group of young people whose names you’ve never heard, it is sometimes a sign that they are spending time with people who enable them to drink and take drugs.
  • Changes in grooming. Adolescents usually want to look good for their peers. If your teen stops showering or caring about their appearance, it might mean that something else has taken priority.
  • Worsening academic performance. It is usually very difficult to get straight A’s when you’re high or drunk. Decreased academic performance is always a cause for concern, but that is especially true if the reason is drug addiction.
  • Missing classes. Teenagers can play hooky for a number of reasons. Getting high is a common one.
  • Abandoning hobbies. Drugs and alcohol provide such a powerful high that often formerly enjoyable pursuits pale in comparison. If your teenager is no longer doing what they love, that is often a sign of substance abuse.

Teen Drug Abuse Treatment

While it is normal for any young adult to have difficult periods of time, when the cause is substance abuse, it is crucial to seek outside help. The developing brains of teenagers are especially vulnerable to addiction. Inpatient treatment centers are excellent ways to help your teen recover from substance abuse and prevent relapse down the road. 

At Design for Recovery, we believe that recovery is best pursued in a community, not alone. That’s why our recovery house in Los Angeles provides a supportive and caring environment for teens struggling with addiction. Our program is designed to help your teen build a brighter future by providing evidence-based therapies and treatments, as well as a fun and engaging sober community to be a part of. Our experienced staff works closely with each resident to provide individualized care and support, creating a safe and nurturing environment for healing and growth. Don’t just take our word for it – check out testimonials from our graduates and their parents to see how our program has helped others on their recovery journey. At Design for Recovery, we are committed to helping teens overcome addiction and build a better life in recovery.

Read Further:

Mental Illness and Drug Addiction: Dual Diagnosis


Edited by: David Beasley

David Beasley - Design for Recovery

David Beasley is a certified RADT (Registered Alcohol/Drug Technician). David, moved to California from North Carolina after many failed attempts to get sober.

Medically Reviewed by: Charley Allen

Charley earned his Masters of Clinical Psychology from Antioch University, Los Angeles, and is a California Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT).He teaches mindfulness to both adults and children in group setting such as schools, corporate workplaces, and medical treatment facilities.

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