Teen Substance Abuse: The Warning Signs

1998, The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding

Watch for these signs and symptoms that may indicate teen alcohol and drug abuse. A combination of several signs warrants your immediate attention.

Behavioral Signs

  • An increase in erratic and drastic mood swings for no obvious reason
  • Hostility and rebellion towards those in authority (parents, teachers, church, etc.)
  • Stealing and shoplifting
  • Unexplained increase in spending
  • Little regard for personal safety and an increase in risky behavior (driving fast, etc.)
  • Traffic tickets
  • Vandalism
  • Signs of depression
  • Change in eating habits
  • Promiscuous sexual behavior
  • Disorientation as to time
  • Memory lapse
  • Cutting class at school
  • Truancy and tardiness
  • Decline in grades
  • Involvement in fights at school
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Lack of motivation
  • Verbal abusiveness
  • Panic, paranoia, suspiciousness
  • Hallucinations or loss of touch with reality
  • Change in activities
  • Dropping out of sports programs
  • Inability to hold down an after school job
  • Staying out all night
  • An increase in mysterious phone calls
  • Preoccupation with music promoting party and substance-abuse themes

Social signs

  • Change in circle of friends
  • Suddenly becoming more popular
  • Suddenly becoming a loner and separating from others
  • Withdrawal from family and a dramatic increase in time spent alone at home
  • lack of communication with family
  • Secretive behavior, telling family members to Astay out of my business



Physiological signs


  • Disheveled appearance
  • Lack of concern for personal hygiene
  • Alcohol on breath
  • Smell of smoke on clothing
  • Smell of mints or onions on breath to cover up alcohol/marijuana odor
  • Dilated pupils
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Staggered speech
  • Lethargy
  • Long periods without sleep
  • Long periods of sleep
  • Sickly appearance
  • Dramatic weight loss or weight gain


Obvious signs


  • Discovering drug paraphernalia (pipes, rolling papers, vials, lighters, burners,mirrors, razor blades, scales, matches, small plastic bags, pills)
  • Spending time with kids who are known to use drugs and alcohol
  • Disappearance of money or alcohol from the house
  • Intoxication
  • Expressed concerns about their own substance abuse problem
  • Burn marks on clothing or furniture
  • Needle marks
  • Arrest for drug or alcohol related incidents


Signs of inhalant abuse

(particularly prevalent among young adolescents)


  • Dilated pupils
  • Glazed or reddened eyes
  • Sores around the nose and mouth
  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Slurred speech
  • Violent behavior
  • Chronic cough
  • Nosebleeds
  • Chemicals on breath
  • Numbness and tingling in hands and feet
  • Excessive salivation


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For more information on resources to help you understand today’s rapidly changing youth culture, contact the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding.