Would you be able to tell if your child started experimenting with nicotine, alcohol, or other drugs? It may not always be obvious, especially if they are trying to hide it from you, rather than tell you and seek advice or help. The early signs of substance use are typically subtle. It’s important to detect the risk factors that precede use as early as possible. Risk factors include emotional, developmental, and behavioral problems, increased stress, having a family member who uses, and lacking self-esteem, just to name a few. Timely and consistent parental engagement is crucial. A lack of it will increase your child’s likelihood of drinking and using drugs.
Teens often experience the following behavioral changes: mood swings, erratic sleeping patterns, increased demand for privacy, and changes in hobbies, interests, and friends. How can you tell if this is normal behavior or if they are showing signs of use? A parent’s best early detection method is an ongoing dialogue with their teen about what’s going on in their life and what their concerns and thoughts are. When changes are sudden and drastic or when many changes begin to occur simultaneously you should be ready to investigate and find out what the root of the problem is.
Changes in behavior send an “alarm” that your teen could possibly be using nicotine, alcohol, or other drugs. These are called “siren signals”. The first siren signal you should look out for is your teen dropping old friends and getting new ones. By observing the changes and talking to your teen about why they have developed new friendships you can help distinguish between a typical teen shift in friends and a cause for concern. Teens that smoke, drink, or use other drugs tend to hang out together, and they abandon their friends that don’t. Make it a priority to get to know your teen’s friends, why he/she hangs out with them, and what they have in common. If you suspect they are using substances, talk with your teen and remind them about how you feel about them engaging in this type of behavior. If your teen confesses that their new friends are using drugs, tell them to consider forming friendships with those that don’t.
Borrowing or stealing money is another siren signal. Teens have limited resources. If a teen is using drugs, their part-time job or their weekly allowance will not provide them with enough money to satisfy their cravings. Be aware of your teen’s spending patterns. Do they run out of allowance before the end of the week? Do they constantly ask you for more money? Keep track of cash in your wallet or around your home so you’ll know if any goes missing.
A third siren signal is dropping activities such as sports. Teens often lose interest in old activities or become bored. If your child stops doing activities they used to love, find out why. Your child’s substance use may be causing a culture clash if the friends who engaged in the old activities disapprove of your child’s behavior. Also, teens often skip out on productive activities to get drunk or high. Talk to other people in your child’s life if you suspect something could be wrong. Also, talk about your concerns with your teen and create more opportunities to spend time together.
Some additional siren signals include:
- Increased secrecy
- Missing or skipping school
- Declining grades
- Constant discipline problems
- Sudden, frequent mood swings
- Chronic restlessness
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Difficulty concentrating
- Use of stimulants to study
Early intervention is a significant prevention tool. Follow your intuition if you suspect a problem and ask your child specific questions about their activities, habits, and friends if you notice one of the siren signals. As a parent, you have the power to take action and protect your teen so they can lead a healthy, drug-free life.
How often do you check in with your teen about how they are feeling or what is going on in their life? Are there specific times of the day when you talk or spend time together? Let us know in the comments below!