Teen Drug Use: Helping Your Child Through Addiction

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated January 10, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Anyone can become addicted to drugs at any age. While alcohol and tobacco are the most commonly used drugs among teenagers, adolescents may also experiment with prescription drugs, marijuana, or other potentially fatal narcotics like fentanyl. 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 use of illicit drugs can impede or damage neural growth or cognitive function. Early intervention gives the child a greater shot at long-term recovery and living a healthy life.

Family Therapy Is A Critical Component Of Addiction Recovery

Signs That An Adolescent May Be Using Drugs

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

If your child experiences a negative change in mood or behavior, such as acting hostile or withdrawn or feeling tired or depressed all the time, this can be a sign that they may be developing a problem related to drugs.

Such 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 odors

  • Using eye drops to reduce eye redness and eye dilation

  • Having bloodshot eyes or small pupils

  • Experiencing unexplainable nosebleeds (which could indicate cocaine or methamphetamine use)

  • 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


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 drug use and for health conditions related to using drugs. You may want to check with your doctor in advance to ensure that they are comfortable conducting a 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 are specialized in drug addiction. You can find a doctor by clicking on the "Find a Physician" link on the homepage of the website of the American Society of Addiction Medicine. You can also use the "Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist Finder" on the website of 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, this helps the doctor realize the extent of the child's addiction 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 over the course of an academic year, 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 accessible and, as a parent, 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. 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 only enter treatment when they are forced to go, such as when their parents bring them or when they get in trouble with the law and the justice system interferes. It is therefore 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.

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, but that will be more than beneficial to them in the long run.

Drugs 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. 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 fueled your child's desire to seek out illicit substances.

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.

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. This is especially true 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, it has been proven to be beneficial to help families find solutions that will bring them closer together, not further apart. Teenagers' substance use is not an easy subject, as many factors can lead to a child developing an addiction to drugs.

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

Family Therapy Is A Critical Component Of Addiction Recovery

Whether you are in a solid marriage, or you are parenting independently, demonstrating a united front can be a powerful way of helping the child living with an addiction. If you have a partner or group of immediate families who are responsible for or invested in the teen’s care and well-being, take some time away from the child to discuss the issues at hand. Together, you can create an action plan that allows you to work with one another to defeat the problem.

A child who sees their parent(s) and/or community working together to help them may be reached in ways that a sole parent might not have reached alone. Sometimes both parents 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.

Online Therapy With BetterHelp

Do you have reason to believe that your teenager may be using drugs? 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 awareness. 

The Efficacy Of Online Therapy

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.

Takeaway

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. 

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