Teen Drug Use: Helping Your Child Through Addiction

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated August 30, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Anyone can become addicted to drugs at any age. Adolescent drug use and teenage drinking in the US is a serious issue. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s Monitoring the Future Survey, overseen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, adolescents continue to report interest in using nicotine (particularly vaping), cannabis, and alcohol, and the risk of adolescent death by accidental drug overdose is also rising.

During adolescence, it’s vital to address a problem when the first signs present themselves. The human brain continues to mature during adolescence, and regular drug use can impede or damage neural growth or cognitive function. Early intervention gives a child a greater shot at long-term recovery and living a life free of health complications.

Why Do Adolescents Use Drugs?

Adolescents may begin to experiment with drugs for a variety of reasons. While every individual instance of adolescent substance use is different, there are some factors that could cause an increased risk of drug use. Teenagers experiencing mental health concerns such as depression or anxiety may turn to illicit drugs as a form of self-medication. Stressors in other areas of an adolescent’s life, such as low grades in school or experiences with bullying or cyberbullying, also can heighten the risk of substance use. 

Family Therapy Is A Critical Component Of Addiction Recovery

There are also components of an adolescent’s life that may reduce their likelihood of drug use, or increase the likelihood that they will limit their engagement with substances to occasional recreational use as opposed to developing a substance use disorder. These preventive factors include strong bonds with family and active participation in school or community organizations.

Signs That An Adolescent May Be Using Drugs

It can be challenging for loved ones to recognize destructive patterns stemming from adolescent substance use because many typical teenage behaviors can mimic symptoms of drug and alcohol use (i.e., confusion, moodiness, and fluctuating energy levels).

If your child experiences a negative change in mood or behavior, such as beginning to act hostile or withdrawn or feeling tired or depressed all the time, these changes can be a sign that they may be developing a problem related to drug abuse.

Such adolescent substance abuse signs are often missed or overlooked, as parents attribute them to being a normal part of growing up. However, if these signs are coupled with any of the following, then it may be a cause for concern:

  • Socializing with a different group of friends
  • Neglecting their appearance
  • Skipping class
  • Earning failing grades
  • Getting in trouble at school or with the law
  • Experiencing deteriorating relationships
  • Requesting money more frequently
  • Using candles or air fresheners (to mask smoke and other odors associated with substance use)
  • Having bloodshot eyes or small pupils, or using eye drops frequently when they have never needed them before
  • Experiencing unexplainable nosebleeds (which could indicate they have been snorting a substance)
  • Experiencing seizures with no history of epilepsy
  • Showing signs of injuries, accidents, or bruises that they cannot remember or won't discuss
  • Smelling unusual
  • Having impaired or unstable coordination
  • Speaking incoherently or slurring
  • Shaking or experiencing body tremors
  • Possessing drug paraphernalia (rolling papers, baggies, vials, syringes, etc.)

Early intervention is the key to successful treatment. If you notice any of these signs of potential addiction, then the next step is to assist your child in seeking help.

Seeking Help For Your Teen

The first step in seeking help with your teen's potential drug use is to consult with a professional. You can bring your child to their doctor so that they can be screened for signs of substance abuse problems, including health conditions related to using drugs. You may want to check with your doctor in advance to ensure that they are comfortable conducting a drug test. Otherwise, they may be able to refer you to a doctor who specializes in this area.


You may want to call an addiction specialist directly. In the U.S. alone, 3,500 board-certified physicians specialize in substance use disorders. You can find a doctor by clicking on the "Find a Physician" link on the American Society of Addiction Medicine’s website. You can also use the "Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist Finder" on the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. In both cases, you and the doctor can decide whether your child should be referred for treatment or not. 

In addition to asking your child a series of questions to evaluate whether they may have a drug-related issue, the doctor may also conduct blood and urine tests to check for the presence of substances. If any drugs are present, these tests help the doctor realize the extent of the child's drug use and they can begin to treat them accordingly.

At first, you may be apprehensive about seeking treatment for your child during the school year. After all, treatment can impact all sorts of milestones for high school students, from scholarly pursuits to athletic tournaments. However, so, too, can drugs.

Treatment can help your child regain control over their life by diminishing or eliminating the effects that addiction can have on their body, brain, and behavior. Perhaps most important, you want to be confident in your teen’s health before they graduate and head out into the world, where drugs are more available and, you may be hindered from helping your child get the treatment they need.

Adolescents And Intervention

You may have watched drug interventions on television before. Often, in these media portrayals, Friends and family essentially gang up on their loved one, giving them a hard dose of reality by forcing the person to admit they have a drug problem and agree to seek treatment for it. However, there is no evidence to prove that this type of confrontation is effective at convincing someone to enter treatment. In fact, confrontations like these can backfire, leading to violence or other negative and unexpected results.

Many adolescents will enter treatment only when they are forced to go, such as when their parents bring them or when they run into trouble with the law and the justice system interferes. Therefore, it is important that parents focus on giving the child an incentive to consult with a doctor. It is not advisable for the family to attempt to intervene. Teens are more likely to listen to a doctor who has been trained in the subject and is not emotionally involved.

Family Therapy Is A Critical Component Of Addiction Recovery

If drug use is confirmed, your child may have many fears and concerns about treatment. You can reassure your child that, should they need to go through detox, the treatment center will keep them as safe and as comfortable as they possibly can. Reaffirm the fact that the teen’s family and loved ones will still be there to offer love and support as they go through what can be a harrowing ordeal, in the short term, but will be beneficial to them in the long run.

Medication As Treatment For Drug Addiction?

Adults who are living with an addiction to alcohol, nicotine, and opioids, including heroin, are typically prescribed certain non-habit-forming medications to help wean them from their addictions by reducing the effects of withdrawal symptoms. These same medications may also be prescribed to teens and young adults, but in smaller amounts. 

Medication is typically used in conjunction with behavioral therapy. For instance, medication may be prescribed to treat the depression that may have fueled your child's desire to start binge drinking or using other drugs

Your treatment provider can recommend the medications that might work most effectively for your child's specific needs. Some treatment centers do not believe in fighting drug addiction with more drugs, but research shows that in many cases, medication can work by boosting therapeutic efforts. Only seek medication under the guidance of a medical doctor or psychiatrist.

Joanne Mylacraine, LMFT
Joanne is lovely and was very helpful with my concerns regarding my teenage daughter. She offered helpful strategies and a listening ear.”

Don't Blame Yourself

You may be tempted to blame yourself for your child turning to drugs, but ultimately it is your child's decision to use drugs as a coping mechanism. Some professionals believe that it is in the teen’s best interests to separate them from their parents while undergoing treatment for a substance use disorder. This separation can be helpful if the parent(s) have addictions themselves. If the parents are not actively using drugs and are willing to be a part of the solution, however, it is beneficial to help families find solutions that will bring them closer together, not further apart. Adolescent alcohol and substance use is not an easy subject, as many risk factors can lead to a child developing an addiction.

Parents have more influence than anyone else over their children. Doctors, therapists, and friends can all play a role in recovery, but parents can provide the love and support that the adolescent needs. Even if your child is tense or withdrawn, there remains a deep-seated connection between parents and their children - a connection that can be relied upon to help save the child's life.

Parenting As A Team Effort

Whatever your family composition, demonstrating a united front can be a powerful way of helping a child living with an addiction. If you have a partner or a group of immediate and/or extended families who are responsible for or invested in the teen’s care and well-being, discuss the child’s situation together. You can collaborate to create an action plan that allows you to work with one another to defeat the problem.

Sometimes parents and other family constituents will agree on how best to approach the situation, and other times they’ll need to reach a compromise. What is most important is that you recognize that each of you may handle the situation differently on your own, but in working together, you must put your differences aside and come up with a parenting plan that can benefit the child most in the long run.

How Online Therapy Can Help

Online therapy is available to individuals, couples, or families. One study assessed the efficacy of a telehealth intervention for families, comparing the results to those of face-to-face therapies. Researchers found “equivalent outcomes” between web-based interventions and traditional therapy. In the case of depression, the telehealth treatment was even found to be superior, with parents experiencing an even greater reduction in their depressive symptoms than those going through traditional, face-to-face treatments.

If you are considering seeking help for your child, consider contacting one of BetterHelp’s licensed counselors, who can assist you with the process.

Online therapy may be a useful way of seeking support for your teenager. Parents can schedule sessions with a therapist at any time of the day and participate in therapy from the comfort of their own home or office, which is useful if they need to schedule an appointment outside of their child’s knowledge. 


When it’s your own child who is struggling with drug addiction, it can be very difficult to cope with. Many parents feel deep sorrow, helplessness, lack of control, or guilt when striving to help their teens through drug addiction. These feelings are to be expected, but you can begin to work through them in therapy. In online family therapy, you can create a plan of action, identify and designate resources, and maintain a united front as you help your teen through this challenging time in their life. Early intervention is critical for helping teens recover from issues with addiction, and a licensed online therapist can point you in the right direction. If your intuition or other signs are telling you that your teenager may have a drug addiction, it is never the wrong time to start asking questions and seeking help in getting them treatment. 

Adolescence can be a challenging life stage

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