Missing money. Late night sneak outs. Sports practices skipped. A sudden and drastic change of wardrobe that your teen insists on wearing every single day.
These odd behaviors suggest something big is going on with your teen, some new event, struggle, or presence that is instigating these activities. While typical teenage development and dilemmas may explain your teen’s behavior, these actions might also be the cause of a more serious issue such as depression, bullying, or drug or alcohol use.
Substance use often manifests itself in behavioral signs, which are unfortunately often missed because teenagers naturally undergo so many other emotional, physical, and social transformations during adolescence.
Discerning new behaviors that are spurred on by drug abuse from those that are natural can be difficult, but it is possible when you trust your instincts and know what behaviors to look for. Our previous article covered apathy and disinterest toward hobbies and responsibilities, the mysterious absence or presence of money, matters regarding clothing and appearance, and issues at school as possible signs of use, but there are a few more behaviors to monitor.
In particular, pay attention to changes in behavior that are radically different from your teen previously, appear very suddenly, and seem to have no valid explanation otherwise (based on your child’s answers when you ask her about it and your own observations/knowledge). The starker the contrast of your child’s behavior then versus now, the more likely something significant (potentially drugs or alcohol use) is going on behind the scenes.
These warning signs should always be of concern, whether due to drugs or something else. You owe it to your teen’s well-being to find out what that something else is.
#4) Up All Night, Sleep All Day
We all know teens like to sleep and, biologically, their growing bodies require more sleep than adults. In addition, their natural internal clocks are adjusted differently, hence why youths are prone to staying up later and sleeping in longer. So don’t be alarmed just because your teen plays video games deep into the night, and you seemingly need a blow horn to wake him up in the morning.
That said, pay attention to his usual sleep patterns, noting stark changes. Suddenly sleeping all the time or not at all, erratic sleep, or unexpected shifts in when your teen sleeps can all be a physical side effect of substance use. They could also be an indirect consequence of your teen’s changing schedule and habits due to doing drugs.
All teens, even the most unmotivated of them, have some sort of usual routine or schedule they generally stick to made up of their job, homework time, practices, chores, when they typically eat meals, maybe a TV show they like to watch that comes on at a certain time, etc. At the very least, they have school most of the year. You probably know the general flow of your child’s day and when he’ll be where.
However, drug use may lead your teen to drop or ditch his responsibilities and former hobbies, hang around new people who are up to no good, and frequently attend parties or other opportunities for risky behavior. His once-usual schedule will alter as a result. He might leave the house very early in the morning though he is not required to by school or other obligation or stay out increasingly late—perhaps all night—and do so consistently.
If your teen does not already have a curfew, set one. If he does, make sure you take it seriously. Be reasonable in the time you set but create and follow through on consequences should your teen break it.
Eventually, if your child displays sufficient trust and communication skills you can be lenient with the curfew from time to time, but start out enforcing it firmly, and even if you let your teen stay out later on special occasion, uphold the curfew most nights. Teenagers are much less likely to respect and follow a rule if you yourself treat it more like a mere suggestion.
Be wary of your child insisting on going out all the time, especially at unusual hours or on school nights. Furthermore, what is his reaction if you do not let him go? Is he surprisingly or uncharacteristically upset or angry, even when you have a very valid reason for saying no?
Finally, there’s sneaking out.
There are a multitude of reasons why your teen might secretly leave the house (typically at night) without informing you:
To rebel against overly-strict rules (or at least what she believes to be so)
To get an adrenaline rush from the act of sneaking out itself
To go to some place or engage in some activity she knows you disapprove of. This could include vandalism or pulling pranks around the neighborhood, going to a party, meeting up with a significant other or a banned friend, drinking, smoking, using drugs, etc. Basically, if your teen resorts to covertly leaving in the middle of the night to do something, it’s likely not a good or safe activity.
No matter the exact reason for it, sneaking out, like not coming home all night, is always a sign of accelerated risky behavior. It demonstrates a willingness to hide things from you and break rules to serve her own agenda, attitudes and actions similarly employed in dangerous activities like substance use.
Even if your teen leaves to do something harmless, such as simply take a walk or stargaze, sneaking out can be dangerous. Depending on the area you live, it might night be safe for a young person to be out at night, particularly if she is alone. Even in a perfectly safe neighborhood, if your teen were to get hurt or into trouble you wouldn’t know about it and might be difficult to reach if you are asleep.
#5) Dirty Little Secrets and Big Fat Lies
Secrets and lies, lies and secrets. The two go hand in hand, and if your teen is doing drugs under your nose, they are sure to follow.
These final two behaviors, by their very definition, can be tough to spot but are perhaps the most frequent behavioral patterns of teen drug use. Lying and keeping secrets commonly pervade through all of the other behavior signs on this list, serving as a way to cover up or diffuse suspicion about teens’ new actions and activities.
Sneaking out, refusing to inform you about their plans, hiding failing report cards, stealing money, dressing in a way to conceal physical side effects, owning disguised drug paraphernalia, and more are all deceptive methods teenagers employ to keep their substance use, as well the consequences of such, a secret. In addition, if your child abuses drugs he may be incredibly guarded about his friends, possessions, whereabouts, plans, and activities. He never openly discusses anything about them with you, and your questions usually elicit responses such as “butt out” or “it’s none of your business.” Your teen might claim his room is “off limits” and freak out if you so much as enter to put a pile of laundry on his bed.
Don’t confuse an increased—but perfectly normal for a developing young adult—desire for privacy with nefarious secrecy. Just because your teen requests that you knock before going into his room does not mean he is using that extra time to hide his stash.
Rather, notice when your teen seems to actively or blatantly go out of his way to avoid sharing something with you or becomes strikingly alarmed when you see or learn about something you weren’t supposed to. Why does he have that reaction? If the situation doesn’t immediately make sense on why it was kept secret, perhaps you don’t have all the pieces yet. Press your child for answers.
If keeping secrets is one side of a coin, lying is the other.
Teenagers doing drugs will often become frequent, almost chronic liars, because the continuation of their substance-using habits largely depends on parents not knowing about it. They will give misinformation about where they are going or have been, who they were with, what they were doing, the reasons for their actions, and everything in between. When you confront your teen about other potentially troubling behaviors—why she suddenly lost interest in softball or, out-of-nowhere, completely changed her style of clothes, for example—she fails to answer honestly, instead giving the responses she knows will keep her out of trouble.
But how are you supposed to discern truth from fiction?
Some parents might luck out and have a terrible liar for a child or simply have an uncanny ability to tell when their teen lies. For everyone else, be observant, trust your gut instincts, and take steps to learn the truth for yourself.
Even if your teen is scarily good at lying, as she lies more and more, constantly maintaining a web of lies will become incredibly difficult. At some point she’s bound to slip up. Her stories may conflict with one another or not add up. She might initially cover the truth with one lie but later forget what she said and say a new one. Keep your eyes open and take notice when these clues appear.
Oppositely, perhaps none of these indicators occur. You never catch your child in a lie and have no actual evidence of deception. Yet…something just doesn’t sit right.
Don’t dismiss that feeling as mere paranoia. Parental instinct is a powerful thing, and while you shouldn’t punish your teen without any proof, having that reaction is a sign you should have a serious discussion with your child about drugs and alcohol and consider adopting more elaborate methods to see if there are lying and secrets going on.
Follow up on whatever plans your teen told you he has. For instance, drive by the restaurant he said he was going to see if you can spot him and his buddies through the window or find his car in the parking lot. Call the parents of the friend whose house your child is staying the night at to confirm it is truly happening.
Consider searching you teen’s backpack, purse, room, and car for drugs, alcohol, cigarettes/tobacco products, and related paraphernalia. Keep in mind that drug users often conceal these items in everyday normal-looking objects. Look through soda cans, mint boxes, makeup containers, belts, bottles/thermoses, books, old toys, and even markers/highlighters, double-checking for false bottoms and secret compartments that might store substances.
You—and certainly your teen if he knows about your search—might feel this is an invasion of privacy, a line you shouldn’t cross, but your cannot think this way. Your foremost jobs as a parent are to protect your child’s well-being and guide them to become a healthy, responsible, well-adjusted adult. Drug use critically threatens these goals. If you have just cause for a search—you’ve noticed other signs of drug use or have an overwhelming instinct that your teen is lying to you—then you have a duty to perform it.
Finally, throughout everything, always encourage and reward honesty. Once teenagers start using drugs, lying, and keeping secrets, it can be difficult for them to stop even when they want to. They continue down a dark path because they are too afraid of how you’ll react when you learn what they’ve done, leading them to further hide the truth.
To combat this, assure your teen you care more about him and his safety than punishing him, and that it is alright if he made mistakes if he’s willing to tell the truth and ask for help now. Give frequent opportunities for your child to come clean and go easier on him than if you learned what he did on your own.
Your teen will change a lot as she develops into an adult and might display some odd behaviors along the way. Remember not every new, strange habit or weird action means your child has some major issue happening behind the scenes.
More than likely it’s just her growing up and figuring out who she is, but pay attention all the same. If you notice extreme examples of these behaviors or multiple signs occurring together, however, then there might be an issue, and it’s time to intervene and put an end to your teen’s drug use.
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By Tyler Wroblewski
If you learn (or highly suspect) that your teen is using drugs or alcohol, read our tips on how to effectively intervene or click here for our first three behavioral signs that your teen is using drugs.
Group of Teenagers: From chiesADlbeinasco at https://www.flickr.com/photos/chiesadibeinasco/7361636130
Paranoid Man: From Aaron Tait at https://www.flickr.com/photos/aarontait/4838674414
Funny Face: From Raissa Ruschel at https://www.flickr.com/photos/raruschel/5532915729
Sleeping Teen: From MC Quinn at https://www.flickr.com/photos/mcquinn/2302823476
Jazz Band Practice: From San Jose Public Library at https://www.flickr.com/photos/sanjoselibrary/5731028595
Checking Watch: From MrTime2give at https://www.flickr.com/photos/mrtime2give/8064364626
Climbing Out Window: From Guyinsuit1 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Beer Pong: From Jirka Matousek at https://www.flickr.com/photos/jirka_matousek/9125052180
Lonely Walk at Night: From Christopher Cook at https://www.flickr.com/photos/133517056@N05/19934690626
Teen in Hoodie: From vanes_hud at https://www.flickr.com/photos/svenjajan/3128894157
Do Not Enter: From Emma Craig at https://www.flickr.com/photos/98925031@N08/9571827657
Pinnochio: From Walt Disney (Original trailer (1940)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Nervous Girl: From Maxwell GS on Flickr [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Lion and Cub: From fortherock at https://www.flickr.com/photos/fortherock/3898643410
Cigarettes Hidden in Book: From High Contrast (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/de/deed.en) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Messy Room: From Ben Babcock at https://www.flickr.com/photos/tachyondecay/2067319449/in/photostream/
Conversation at Table: From Matt @ PEK from Taipei, Taiwan (Conversation) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons