Seven sneaky signs your teen might be using drugs

teen boy with backpack walking down street with head down


By Sherri Sacconaghi

Drugs, alcohol and E-cigarettes are land mines every parent hopes their child will avoid. As parents of two teenagers, we’ve talked with our boys from a very young age about peer pressure, and the dangers of drug and alcohol use. Although realistically I anticipated they would at some point experiment with drinking, I felt confident our kids were well-equipped with the skills needed to navigate the temptations of habitual substance use. Confident, that is, until our oldest son, Dylan, started acting a little “off” his sophomore year in high school.

“You are overreacting,” my husband said to me one day as I was Googling signs of drug use on my laptop. Dylan had started sleeping a lot and I was concerned.

“My mom gut is talking to me. He just looks pale and he is sleeping so much.”

“You’re jumping to conclusions. He’s a teenager, and teenagers sleep. He hasn’t given us any reason to suspect him of drug use, for goodness sake!”

Marc was right. Overall Dylan didn’t display the typical warning signs I found in my online searches. His grades were near perfect, he held a starting position on the varsity lacrosse team, and after a rough freshman year struggling to find a peer group, he now had a small, tight group of friends.

Maybe I was overreacting.

Sleepy, moody, and distant can describe almost any teen at some point, and for months I convinced myself that Dylan was just going through the normal phases of adolescence. I wanted to believe everything was fine, of course I did, but somehow I missed the subtle signs that were taking place right under my nose. Signs, which had I seen them, may have allowed me to intervene earlier, possibly preventing his shift from experimentation with marijuana, vaping and alcohol downward into a full spiral, which ultimately required us to seek professional intervention.

I realize now I am not alone in this battle. Through my son’s recovery process, I am grateful to have connected with a network of parents across the country, all who are struggling with teen substance use. It is with their experience and insight that I have put together seven sneaky signs parents need to watch out for.

1. Multiple bags or backpacks. Between school and sports, it is normal to see kids adorned with a bag of some sort. But it wasn’t until I found multiple backpacks and draw string bags scattered around the house that I started to wonder what was up. And did he need one every time he left the house? Backpacks aren’t just for books and soccer cleats, they are also a great way to sneak a bong, a beer or other drug-related paraphernalia right past parents and out of the house.

2. Excessive use of eye drops. Allergies can be bad no matter where you live, and watery runny eyes go with the territory. Dylan often asked me to purchase allergy meds and nose spray but never eye drops. So why was I finding bottles of Visine in his desk, on his nightstand, and in the car? Dylan now admits that eye drops are a must for anyone trying to cover the red eye associated with being under the influence of marijuana.

3. Open windows and missing window screens. Who doesn’t like a little fresh air, but open windows in the dead of winter may be a sign of something more. “I get so hot when I sleep,” Dylan said to me when I questioned his igloo-like preferences. It wasn’t until the screens on his new bedroom window kept “falling out” that I got suspicious, eventually discovering he was holding his joint out the window to keep the odor from floating out of his room and into the rest of the house.

4. Broken electronics. As any parent of a teen knows, clutter control is a must for maintaining sanity. While tidying up his room I was increasingly running across pieces of earbuds and computer cords with exposed wires. Turns out they make a great charger for vaping devices. A police officer informed Carolyn, a mom in my network, that the foil, empty pens, electrical tape or random metal pieces she was discovering in her teen’s room were actually the makings of a homemade pipe.

5. Vanishing money. It takes a good chunk of change to buy alcohol, weed, vape pens, etc. If you notice, despite having a job or an allowance, that your child is constantly asking for money keep an eye out for actual purchases. A mom in my network, Patricia, reported she became suspicious when she continually gave her daughter extra money for gas yet the tank was always empty. While Julie reported that she would give her son money for food only to find him scouring the pantry an hour later.

6. Pungent scents. If you start to notice the strong scent of cologne, incense, candles, or air fresheners, it may in fact be for ambiance or it could be a smoking cover up. I started discovering my dwindling candle collection in Dylan’s room, but beware, teens can get creative as one parent learned. She reported finding toilet paper rolls stuffed with perfume drenched Kleenex to cover the smell of smoke in her teen’s room.

7. Permissive parents. “Don’t worry, Mom, the parents are home.” This was something Dylan would often say to me when I questioned his evening plans. And it was true, many times the parents were home. It turns out though that not all folks have the same parenting philosophy as we do. Like many of us in my network, I encountered other parents who allowed drug and alcohol use in their homes, citing it as a safer alternative to having their kids out and about. Needless to say, these are the same homes that became frequent “hangs” for our son and his buddies.

As parents, we see what we want to see, and often times that means we ignore our intuition when it comes to our kids—or maybe we just don’t know the signs. If you are concerned that your son or daughter may be using drugs or alcohol, my best advice is to keep a watchful eye and be aware of anything that looks, or smells, out of place. Do your best to maintain an open line of communication with your teen and resist allowing your fear of embarrassing them, or yourself, to stand in the way of keeping them safe and heathy. It took me a long time to notice the signs my son was abusing drugs and alcohol but my hope is, armed with some of this insight, what I’ve learned may give you a jump start on the battle against your child’s potential substance use.

Sherri Sacconaghi writes about her parenting journey as a mother with anorexia nervosa in her blog A parent mentor for Evoke Wilderness therapy programs, she is passionate about supporting and educating other families about teen drug use. You can find more about Sherri  on: Facebook,  Instagram, and Twitter.

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