The teen years are a challenging time for both teenagers and their parents. Teenagers, stuck between adulthood and childhood, must contend with a number of physical and psychological changes. This manifests itself in behavioral changes and, unfortunately, many of the attitudes and actions of your typical teen can resemble behavior that might signify substance abuse or a mental health issue. So, how does a parent know what to look for and what it means? It is mostly a question of nuance and context. Here are some key behavioral changes and ways to distinguish between typical teenage behavior and the signs of alcohol or drug abuse.
As part of asserting their independence, teenagers place a high premium on privacy. Children who never thought to conceal much of anything from their families suddenly become very protective of their world and selective about what they share with their parents. There is a difference, however, between craving privacy and being sneaky. For example, if your teen begins to lock his or her door that is not necessarily a problem. When your teen does answer the door, try to notice other things that might distinguish secretiveness that is secret or troublesome. These include: the smell of smoke, alcohol or drug in their room or clothes; illicit paraphernalia; odd behavior such as paranoia, extreme drowsiness, anxiety, or low responsiveness. As a parent, you know your teen best and should be able to discern between normal and furtive behavior, and always keep an honest, open, non-judgmental dialogue with him or her.
Everything in a teen’s world has heightened significance, which often translates into elevated and unpredictable emotions. However, if an emotion persists over an extended period or there’s a detectable pattern, your child might be using drugs or alcohol. While it is not unusual for a teen to seem sullen, angry, sad, or distant at times or to experience mood swings, that should be the exception not the rule. Keep in mind that while these can be indicators of drug and alcohol abuse, they can also be signs of depression or a difficult situation you do not know about. The best way to know what is happening with your teen is to ask. Starting with questions about drug or alcohol use will probably not get you very far, whether your teen is abusing them or not. Expressing your concern and explaining the things you have noticed, however, could be the beginnings of a very important conversation.
It is not uncommon for teens to alter their appearance. What may seem drastic to you may just be them trying on a different persona. In large part, you have to pick your battles when a teen’s appearance is involved. For example, dyeing hair, applying elaborate makeup, or making unusual fashion choices are generally not a big deal. Conversely, significant weight loss or gain, sloppiness, decreased hygiene, and unusual skin pallor are all physical indicators something has changed and needs to be addressed. If your teen looks unhealthy, he or she probably is. While that can mean substance abuse, it can also indicate a mental health or other medical issue. In order for your conversations to be productive, these issues need to be addressed with particular sensitivity. These changes can be part of the normal growing process and are often a source of embarrassment. You should still address these issues with your teen.
Changes in Relationships and Interests
Teenagers frequently acquire new friends and interests. They may also leave behind friendships and activities from their past. All of this is normal behavior. It is alarming, however, if they actively avoid introducing you to these new friends or their old interests do not seem to be replaced with new ones. Grades are an excellent way of gauging your teen’s current situation. Slipping grades, while not uncommon, are a red flag and should not be ignored. Likewise, if your once enthusiastically athletic or artistic child suddenly has no interest in sports or the arts, you should at the very least ask why the switch has occurred. Maybe he or she just wants to try something different or the pressure of school does not leave much time and energy for those activities. On the other hand, more serious matters like depression and drug or alcohol abuse could be the underlying cause.
All teens push their boundaries. Determining exactly what their behavior means depends upon degree and frequency. For example, many teenagers lie about why they missed curfew, but if they are habitually lying about where they are, whom they are with, and what they are doing, you should be concerned. Similarly, while wrong, a teenager may cut class or skip school once in a while. If your teen is skipping large chunks of school, however, that is worrisome. Lying, stealing, and disappearing for hours on end are not only unacceptable acts but also huge warning signs. The majority of teens are savvy enough to hide the early signs of drug and alcohol abuse. Confronting your teen about his or her bad behavior will help you decide if it is typical behavior, or a part of larger, more serious problem.
When you notice any of these things, the first step is to approach your teen as calmly and neutrally as you can. A conversation that starts with accusations and assumptions will not help either of you. On the other hand, a discussion that begins with concern and openness should help you identify issues and bridge the gap between you and your teenager. If you discover that there is a mental health issue, a specific negative circumstance, or drug or alcohol abuse, you should seek professional help. The best way to combat serious issues is to catch them as early as possible. If you confirm that you are dealing with the inherent turbulence of the teen years, breathe a sigh of relief, but keep the conversation and the observation going. While they may not want to admit it, you are still the best protection against the world’s ills that they have, and eventually, they will appreciate and thank you for it.