Warning Signs of Adolescent Drug Use

written by: Logan Yelderman, MA

Drug use by youth is typically accompanied by behavioral changes that can be difficult to hide from others. However, family and friends of these youth often discount the effects of drugs and, instead, attribute changes in behavior to part of growing up or being a typical teenager. When drug-related changes in behavior persist or are disregarded, relationships can be damaged and friendships broken. Fortunately, there are identifiable signs and symptoms associated with youth drug use, which can help in prevention and intervention efforts.

Drug use can take a toll on a youth’s body, especially if the youth recently started using drugs. These effects include:

  • long lasting fatigue
  • red or glazed eyes
  • continuous health-related complaints or concerns, and
  • persistent cough (especially if smoking is involved)

Drug use can also influence a youth’s ability to regulate emotion. Although puberty and maturation throughout adolescence can trigger emotional changes in youth, drug use can also result in noticeable emotional changes. Some emotional warning signs associated with youth drug use include changes in personality, irritability or sudden changes in mood, poor decision-making, irresponsibility, depression, apathy, low interest or acting withdrawn, and low self-esteem.

Drug use not only affects the youth personally, but it also affects their relationships. Youth who begin using drugs might find themselves:

  • starting arguments with family members
  • breaking their parents’ rules, and
  • acting more reclusive

Drug use might also affect a youth’s performance in school and school related activities. For instance, a youth might become less interested in school, skip class or miss school, make worse grades, have a poorer attitude toward school, and experience disciplinary problems. These outcomes might happen quickly after the youth begins using drugs or gradually from the time the youth first starts using. Lastly, drug use can affect a youth’s social life. This typically includes making friends with other youth who are uninterested in normal or typical youth activities, changing clothes or music styles that are different from before or generally less conventional, and breaking the law. All of these changes in behavior can be indicators that a youth has made a lifestyle change. It is possible that these changes are associated with drug or alcohol use.

Understanding what to look for can help parents, friends, and school/community workers identify possible problematic behavior associated with drug use and help youth acquire treatment. Treating youth drug use problems is important; however, intervening before drug use becomes a problem is critical. Being aware of these warning signs can aid in this matter.

The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) offers a variety of educational opportunities to meet your juvenile drug court needs including training on evidence based practices such as the 16 Strategies in Practice, adolescent development, trauma, and mental health. We also offer targeted onsite training and technical assistance to help your team strategically plan program enhancements, receive feedback on court room protocol and pre-court staffing, and learn about innovative ways to address common challenges within juvenile drug courts. For more information, please visit the NCJFCJ’s Juvenile Treatment Drug Court Information Center or contact Elo Chaparro at echaparro@ncjfcj.org or (775) 784-1550.