Prescription medications, in particular, are increasingly becoming the drug of choice for many teens today. If there are prescription medications in your home, or in the homes of your teen’s friends, access to these drugs can be quite easy. Even if you believe your son or daughter would never use alcohol or street drugs, he or she may be drawn to prescription drugs for a variety of reasons. Even the best kids are vulnerable to making very bad decisions.
It’s not uncommon for parents to be completely caught by surprise when they discover that their teen is using drugs. Granted, in some cases the signs are obvious, but in many cases they are not – unless you know what to look for. As a parent it is definitely worthwhile to learn the signs of an addict so you can intervene before it’s too late.
While every adolescent is different, following are many of the warning signs of prescription drug abuse or addiction:
Secretive Behavior and an Increased Desire for Privacy
It’s not uncommon for adolescents to want privacy, as they strive to become more autonomous. However, if they are using drugs the need for privacy is going to become more pronounced. They may spend more time alone in their room with the door locked, and become irritable or angry if their privacy is violated.
Secretive behavior is also something to watch for. This may include evasive responses to questions about where they have been, who they were with, or what they were doing. Whispering on the phone or sneaking around are clues that they are hiding something.
If there are prescription medications in your home – particularly pain medications, stimulants, or sleeping pills – and they begin to disappear or you find that you need to refill them sooner than you had planned, this may be a clue that your teen is stealing them from your medicine cabinet.
It’s crucial that you carefully monitor any prescriptions to make sure they are where they should be and the quantities are accurate. Also be aware if your adolescent suddenly has new friends who are often in your home. Teens who start abusing drugs often start hanging out with other teens that use as well. Many drug-abusing teens will steal prescription medications from their friends’ parents’ medicine cabinets if given the opportunity.
Also, make sure that you properly and safely dispose of any medications that have expired or that you no longer need. No need to keep them around as potential temptation.
Physical Signs of Being “High”
Different prescription drugs have different physical effects. Signs of intoxication may include unusual drowsiness, unusually high energy, tiny pupils, slurred speech, rapid speech, or confusion.
Abrupt Changes in Friends or a Questionable New Friend
As mentioned above, teens who start using drugs will often change their social circle. If their old friends didn’t use, they will often start hanging out with other kids who do use drugs. In many situations, it is often a new friend that introduces a teen to prescription drug abuse or pressures him or her to experiment with prescription drugs.
If a new friend comes into your teen’s life that makes you uncomfortable – sometimes it may be just a gut feeling or a “bad vibe” – pay close attention. Your instincts may be right, although you want to be careful not to jump to conclusions if you have nothing else to substantiate your suspicions. Many teens who would otherwise never experiment with drugs can be swayed by a charismatic friend as well as by peer pressure.
Decline in School Performance
Teens who start abusing drugs often experience a decline in their school performance. This may be rapid or gradual, depending on a variety of factors. Many prescription drugs will have a negative effect on their sleep or ability to focus. Restful sleep and the ability to concentrate play an important role in their ability to learn, pay attention in class, and complete their homework.
Also, if they are spending more time in drug-related activities such as obtaining the drugs and getting high, they will have less time for school work. Teens that use drugs are also more likely to skip classes. If their attendance has dropped or their grades are declining, this is a definite warning sign that something is wrong.
Neglect of Responsibilities
Responsibilities such as chores at home and part-time jobs often become neglected when teens start using drugs. If they have a job, they may start missing work, frequently show up late, or exhibit a decline in their work performance. Their attitude and demeanor at work may change as well, adversely affecting their job. These changes may be due to the overall effects of the drug on their life in general, or the direct effects of using the drug shortly before work or even while they are working.
Changes in Personality or Attitude
Hormones and the pressures of teenage life make many teens somewhat irritable and moody from time to time. But if you notice significant or abrupt changes in their usual demeanor, it could be due to drug use. Many drugs affect personality. Teens who abuse drugs may become more withdrawn and quiet, or more hostile, aggressive, or irritable. If they are using a stimulant, they may become overly talkative or intrusive.
Changes in Appetite or Eating Habits
Many prescription drugs affect appetite. Stimulants like Ritalin can cause a decrease in appetite. Growing teens, especially active boys, have big appetites. If you notice that they aren’t eating as much as usual – but aren’t specifically trying to diet – it could be due to stimulant use. At the same time, they may start losing weight quickly as a result. Sudden or dramatic weight loss should not be ignored.
Changes in Sleeping Patterns and Habits
Many prescription drugs can significantly affect sleep. Benzodiazepines such as Xanax and Valium are very sedating and may lead to an increase in sleep. Stimulants, on the other hand, interfere with sleep. If your teen is staying up later than normal, sleeping very little night after night, sleeping longer, going to bed unusually early, or taking frequent naps or napping at unusual times, these could be signs of prescription drug abuse. If teachers are noticing problems with your teen falling asleep in class, this could also be due to drug abuse.
Changes in Appearance or Neglect of Hygiene
Many teens are very self-conscious about their appearance due to self-esteem issues, the desire to date, and peer pressure. If they suddenly start neglecting their appearance or hygiene, it could be a warning sign of drug abuse. This could be due to lack of energy, or because they have become apathetic.
Suddenly Needing Money for Unexplained Reasons
Many prescription drugs are very expensive if bought from peers at school, the gym, or “on the street.” If your teen is frequently asking to borrow money or seems to never have enough money, but can’t give a good explanation, this could be a serious warning sign.
Resentment, Defiance or Hostility
When teens begin abusing drugs they are more likely to be resentful, defensive, defiant or hostile. Drug abuse may cause them to suddenly become more confrontational, or even aggressive, in their interactions.
Stealing or Selling Possessions
Teens who abuse drugs and especially those who become addicted will start doing whatever they can to continue to support their habit. If they can’t get money from you, other family members, work, or friends, they will often start stealing. If you notice money missing from your purse, wallet, or any other place you keep it, or if valuables begin disappearing from your home, it could be due to a drug problem. Also, if your teen starts selling expensive possessions that belong to him, this could also be a way to support a drug habit.
Discontinuing Activities That Were Once Really Important
Teens who start abusing drugs often drop out of sports, clubs, school politics, music lessons, etc., that were previously activities they really enjoyed. This can be a warning sign if they are not doing it for an obvious reason – such as starting a part time job – or if they use the time to do nothing more than hang out with new friends – friends who may also be using drugs.
This can be an especially serious warning sign if your teen had always been passionate about an activity, or if he was college bound and pursuing a scholarship related to the activity or that required high participation in extracurricular activities.
Frequent Accidents or Injuries
Many prescription drugs cause drowsiness, impair judgment, and affect coordination. Teens that are abusing drugs are much more likely to get in an accident or injure themselves. If they are not normally accident prone and have no good explanation for (or are evasive regarding) frequent bumps, cuts, falls, bruises, or fender benders, this is a strong warning sign for drug abuse.
Problems With Attention or Memory
Many prescription drugs can have a negative effect on the ability to focus and pay attention. Teens who abuse drugs may become more distractible. These drugs can also impair memory, causing teens to become forgetful. This can severely impact their school and work performance, and make them unreliable.
Frequent Lying or Evasiveness
Teens who abuse drugs don’t want to get caught, nor do they want to explain their behavior. They will often tell lies or be very evasive if questioned about their whereabouts or activities.
It is really important that you keep in mind that none of these behaviors or changes automatically means your teen is abusing drugs. Most, if not all, of them could be due to a psychiatric disorder such as depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder. They could also be due to problems at school, such as being bullied, or due to a traumatic experience or significant loss in their life.
Regardless, any of these warning signs, particularly if they are abrupt changes from normal behavior, should be taken seriously and never ignored. If they are due to drug abuse, the sooner it is dealt with the better. Drug abuse can have very serious consequences. A young life can quickly be ruined or cut short, which is always a tragedy.