Addiction is a mental illness, which means that it can go undetected for years. Until the vicious cycle of drug or alcohol abuse is in full swing, addiction can lie dormant. Some people in recovery say, “I was an alcoholic before I even picked up my first drink.” However, once the addict starts drinking and using, it’s off to the races. How can a parent, family member, friend, or caregiver know when a child with the mental illness of addiction is using drugs?
Weird Behavior Changes
Teenagers are weird. They say weird things, sleep until noon, eat insane amounts of food, and sometimes make no sense at all. However, if your child’s behavior takes a sudden turn for the bizarre, that could be a sign that they’re using drugs and alcohol.
The first step to identifying a weird behavior change is to actually get to know your child. Adolescence and early adulthood is when children differentiate themselves from their parents, pull away, and start forming their own identities. (Some of us are still working on this in our 30s, 40s, and beyond.) If you want to know whether your child is just quirky or whether they’re getting high, spend time learning who the “real” person is. Away from friends, social media, and responsibilities—who is this person you’re raising?
If your child blurts out strange phrases that aren’t random pop culture references or song lyrics (yes, it’s OK to google), spends more time isolating when they’re at home, experiences mood swings and hallucinations, or starts behaving in other strange ways, there may be a substance habit in the picture.
Suddenly Obsessed With Drug Culture
Marijuana leaves, Bob Marley, and nag champa incense. What do these things all have in common? Weed culture. Each substance has a glittery, glamorized set of symbols and icons associated with it. That includes cocaine, heroin, MDMA, marijuana, and alcohol, as well as a slew of substances that weren’t even around 20 years ago. If your child starts collecting Absolut Vodka posters or wants to buy scented blunt wrappers “because they smell good,” or keeps a particular party anthem on repeat, take notice.
The symbols of drug culture change over time, so get to know a little bit about modern drug culture and its idols. The Velvet Underground may be way too old school for your child, but Elliott Smith isn’t. If some part of drug culture starts to make regular appearances in your home, take notice. This isn’t to say that you should lock down your child’s media and only let them listen to wholesome tunes and watch family-friendly shows. It means that keeping an eye on what your child gravitates towards can help you spot an unhealthy habit before things really get out of control.
Spending Time With Unhealthy Friends
Who does your child spend time with? Whose approval do they seek, in their friend group? Social pressure can lead to normalized substance abuse, especially in tight-knit groups of younger people. It may sound like an after school special, but peer pressure is real, especially if your child is young and hasn’t defined their own values and identity yet. Asking your child what they’re up to probably won’t cut it. Learn more about what they think is important about the friendship and why they like a certain friend. What do they have in common with this person?
Taking the time to meet your child’s friends, and making your home a welcoming, safe place to hang out can give you a sense of who your child socializes with. If your child suddenly changes friends or stops seeing friends they were very close with, or transitions to a new friend group, that could be a sign that they’re trying out a new identity. Depending on the friends, and their extracurricular activities, that might mean drinking and drugs too. Binge drinking especially is becoming more common in high school aged people, so be aware of who your child wants to spend the weekend with and why.
A Habit of Self-Neglect
Getting high every day, drinking, and trying out different drugs is hard on your body. Those of us who have been through the wringer with addiction know how much it hurts to detox the morning after, deal with the shakes, and fight off yet another hangover. For younger people, who might be earlier in their addiction, the tell-tale signs of substance abuse are hard to hide.
Red eyes, forgetting to shower or bathe, wearing the same clothes over and over, skipping meals, using Visine, and taking aspirin for mysterious “headaches” should alert you to potential substance abuse. (These same behaviors can also be a sign of depression or other mental distress and should be addressed with professional help.) If your child’s self-care has fallen off dramatically, it may be a sign that their substance use is wearing them down physically and mentally. Fair warning: aggressively confronting someone who’s exhausted, hungover, or strung out might backfire. Talk to a professional healthcare provider or addiction specialist about how to intervene in a way that will get results.
Lying, Cheating, Hiding, and Stealing
As drug or alcohol abuse becomes a habit, negative and harmful behaviors can start to crop up. These behaviors go beyond self-harm or self-neglect. They affect the whole family. Although addiction is not a moral failing, addicts can act out in ways that are dishonest, immoral, and unethical. Truthful people become liars; honest people become thieves. Addiction, by its nature, twists and warps someone’s good character. If you notice that your jewelry is disappearing, or that the money you always keep in your billfold doesn’t add up the way you remember, your child may be helping themselves in order to get the drugs and alcohol they want.
Spotting these behaviors is as simple as keeping your eyes open. If you keep liquor in the house, make sure you have a count of the bottles and that they stay sealed. If you smoke, count your cigarettes. Keep your prescription medications where your child can’t access them. This may sound over the top, but it’s better to know for sure if your child is using than to wonder all the time if you’re just being paranoid. Addicts will lie, cheat, and steal to get what they want. They rarely think about the consequences. If your child behaves this way, it’s not a reflection on you or the way you raised them: it shows how powerful addiction is, and how completely it can change someone’s personality.
Learning to spot the signs of drug use can be critical to stopping addiction before it progresses to a life-threatening illness. By paying attention to how your child behaves, who they spend time with, what kind of media and music they gravitate towards, and how they take care of themselves, you’re not only being a good parent. You’re keeping your eyes open for the signs of addiction—and standing guard against the dangers of drug and alcohol.