Warning Signs A Child Is Using Drugs

Updated on September 7, 2021

Warning signs for drug use among children include changes in behavior, friends, physical appearance, and emotional and mental wellbeing. Children may begin to use drugs for a variety of reasons, such as stress or environmental factors, but there are many ways parents can help.

Symptoms Of Children Using Drugs

Drug use among children has been steadily increasing over the last few years.

It’s important to recognize the trends, signs, and reasoning behind children’s drug use so we can equip them with the tools they need to overcome substance abuse.

In 2017, 23.1% of 8th graders and 42.2% of 10th graders had used alcohol in their lifetime. By 2020, those numbers increased to 25.6% of 8th graders and 46.4% of 10th graders.

If you’re concerned that your child may be using drugs or alcohol but you’re not sure what to look out for, review the signs below.

Warning Signs Of Drug Use In Children

Your child might show physical, behavioral, and mental signs of drug use. Or, you may also find drug paraphernalia in their belongings to indicate drug use.

A study published on the early detection of illicit drug use in teenagers urges the importance of noticing sudden or gradual changes, the most important of which is a change in friends.

There are many signs to look out for, but if your child is showing major changes in personality or behavior without giving a satisfactory reason when confronted, they may be abusing drugs.

Physical Signs Of Drug Use

If a child is using drugs or drinking alcohol, they’ll likely exhibit some physical indications of substance abuse.

These include:

  • dilated pupils
  • bloodshot eyes
  • pin-point pupils
  • fatigue
  • drowsiness
  • dehydration
  • red eyes
  • decrease in coordination
  • increased heart rate
  • slurred speech
  • dizziness
  • weight loss or gain
  • track marks (markings on the skin from injected drugs)
  • runny nose
  • nasal congestion
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • chills
  • sweating
  • shaking
  • neglecting personal hygiene and appearance
  • wearing dirty or old clothing
  • getting piercings or tattoos
  • picking at the skin and hair
  • taking drugs from the medicine cabinet

Behavioral And Social Signs Of Drug Use

Most children who start using drugs will go through noticeable changes in their personality and behavior.

This is often a result of new drug-seeking behaviors (such as sneaking out or stealing money) or a desire to conceal their drug use from family members and authority figures (such as lying).

Some of the behavioral and social signs of drug use in children include:

  • change of friends
  • avoiding eye contact
  • wearing long-sleeved clothing, even in warm weather
  • pulling away from family members and friends
  • changes in regular routines or activities
  • skipping family dinners or outings
  • locking themselves in their room
  • hallucinations
  • acting more or less social than usual
  • skipping class
  • drop in grades and academic performance
  • lack of motivation
  • going out after curfew
  • irritability
  • aggression
  • trouble concentrating
  • accidents
  • impaired judgment
  • impulsive behavior and lack of self-control
  • low productivity
  • lack of interest in hobbies they usually enjoy
  • arguing
  • stealing
  • lying
  • disrespecting authority figures

Mental And Emotional Signs Of Drug Use

Some children might be going through a difficult period in their mental health. This may be the cause or result of drug and alcohol use, as the two issues have a causal relationship.

Some of the mental and emotional signs a child might show when using drugs include:

  • mood swings and instability
  • suicidal thoughts and behaviors
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • paranoia
  • confusion
  • memory loss
  • insomnia
  • crying

Finding Drug Paraphernalia

If you find drug paraphernalia, this is a clear warning sign that your child is abusing drugs. Drug paraphernalia will look different depending on the substance and method of administration.

Here are common items associated with drug use:

  • empty bottles
  • needles
  • spoons
  • pipes
  • papers for rolling
  • tin foil
  • bongs
  • small porcelain bowls
  • ziplock bags
  • weight scales
  • torches or lighters
  • straws

These items may be found in a child’s backpack, room, school locker, or other personal space.

In their room, adolescents and teens may place these items under floorboards, rugs, in their dresser or closet, and other places of entry or hiding.

Common Drugs Of Abuse Among Children

The three most common drugs of abuse for children and teens are alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco.

However, depending on a child’s access to substances, there may be multiple other drugs of abuse available to them.

For example, many children get ahold of prescription drugs, opioid medications, cough syrup, Adderall, and other substances from their own homes or peers.

Children might also consume drug cocktails at parties and gatherings such as lean (a sweet drink containing codeine).

Vaping And Using E-Cigarettes

Since its debut in 2010, vapes have become very popular among children and teens with ad and social media campaigns geared toward young people.

As of 2019, 28% of high schoolers and 11% of middle schoolers had vaped.

And a survey from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) found that an estimated 5.3 million teens use e-cigarettes.

What’s more, while vape companies have claimed these to be a safe alternative to tobacco cigarettes, vapes may also contain marijuana and other addictive and harmful substances.

Reasons Children Might Use Drugs

Children may abuse drugs for many of the same reasons as adults: genetics, environmental factors, and mental disorders.

But children also face unique risk factors for substance abuse that parents and caring adults need to be aware of and address earlier.

A Parent Is Abusing Drugs

As of 2019, 38.9% of children removed from their homes and placed in out-of-home care had a parent who was abusing drugs or alcohol.

And in 2017, about one in eight children — that’s 8.7 million children — 17 or younger lived in a household with at least one parent who had a past substance use disorder.

These children are at a much greater risk of abusing drugs and alcohol.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), children whose parents abuse drugs show higher rates of:

  • substance abuse
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • oppositional behavior
  • conduct problems
  • aggressive behavior

The study found that 53% of these children showed evidence of an alcohol or drug use disorder, compared to 25% of their peers.

These children also showed a faster progression from alcohol use to drug use than their peers.

This rate increases significantly for children of parents with alcohol use disorders and co-occurring mental disorders.

Difficulty Managing Stress And Emotions

Emotional distress is one of the primary factors associated with drug and alcohol abuse across all ages.

For children specifically, stress might be a result of issues in school, academic performance, pressure to succeed or please their parents, difficulty maintaining friendships, and more.

Each of these factors and more can lead children to seek an outlet for stress relief. For many children, drugs or alcohol are a way to escape negative emotions.

Without healthy strategies for stress management, children don’t have the tools to cope with these negative emotions in a productive way, and drugs can sometimes fill that gap.

Mental Illness Or Disorders

Experiencing anxiety, PTSD, mood disorders, or other mental illnesses might influence a child’s drug or alcohol use.

One study published on the NCBI found that for children aged 12 to 17 who had a mental illness, lifetime prevalence of substance use (76%) and regular use (32%) were very common.

Mental illness, suicidal behavior, externalizing disorders, and other factors are major contributors to the development of substance use disorders for children.

Read more about mental illness in children

Home And Environmental Factors

The NCBI study of children with mental illness found that children who experienced trauma or family dysfunction were much more likely to use alcohol, nicotine, or drugs.

Another study found that children of divorced parents are at an increased risk of alcohol dependence and problems.

Divorce or separation in childhood was found to be the strongest predictor of the age a child starts drinking among all other factors examined.

Other risk factors that stem from a child’s home and environment include:

  • perceived stress
  • internalizing conflicts at home
  • externalizing conflicts at home
  • parental drinking and drug use

How To Help A Child Using Drugs

Learning that your child has been abusing drugs or alcohol may be shocking, but it’s important to remain calm and empathetic.

Instead of immediately punishing your child, try to uncover why they’ve been abusing substances and get to the root of the issue.

You may consider some of the following approaches:

Talk To Them

First, sit down and talk with your child. Ask them questions to better understand why they started using substances, and take the time to explain why this is harmful to them.

You might ask:

  • What led you to use drugs/alcohol?
  • How are you doing emotionally and mentally?
  • Are you having trouble in school, with friends, or at home?
  • Do you think this is a healthy outlet? What kinds of healthy outlets can I work on with you?
  • How can I better support you?
  • What are you going to change moving forward?

Drug use is a serious issue, especially because children are more susceptible to alterations in brain development and chemical dependence than adults.

Talk to your child to discover what happened, and make changes based on that information so you can protect your child’s health and safety.

Help Them To Manage Their Stress And Emotions

Many children use drugs because they want to feel better. Stress might arise from school, problems with friendships and relationships, difficulties at home, and much more.

If your child is struggling to manage stress and emotional responses, help them to find a healthy outlet to express and process those emotions instead of drug use.

There are parenting seminars, webinars for children and parents, counselors, phone apps, and many other resources you can offer your child.

Incorporate More Structure

A child with too much unsupervised freedom might struggle to make good choices on their own. Sometimes, they need the guidance of a parent or guardian to help them to make better choices.

If your child is dealing with drug or alcohol use, try creating a routine and incorporating more supervision. This may be difficult for your child if they’re used to having freedom.

Get them involved in sports, clubs, afterschool programs, tutoring, music lessons, or something else that might be of interest to them.

If you’re able, spend time with your child when you’re at home, or bring someone into your home who can watch over them if you need to work or perform other responsibilities.

Get Professional Help

Some children come from broken homes, have a genetic predisposition to addiction, experienced trauma early in life, or have some other force at play that’s causing deeper issues.

If you feel it’s necessary for your child, consider bringing them to a school guidance counselor, a licensed therapist, or a program geared for children struggling with drug abuse.

We want to be everything our kids need, but it’s ok to reach out for more support when we need it. There are people and resources that can be a major help to your child.

List Of Helpful Resources

To help with the next steps, we’ve compiled useful resources for parents of children abusing drugs.

Use the following resources if you believe your child may be using drugs:

Know That Help Is Available

If you’ve noticed any of the warning signs on this list, it may be time to get help for your child and take steps to offer them a better way.

This might mean greater involvement from family members, school guidance, or other options that you believe your child would respond well to.

Understand that help is available, and your child can overcome drug abuse with the proper support system.

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