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The Clinic on Dupont Toronto

What Are Signs That My Teenager is Using Drugs or Alcohol?


As children enter middle and high school, it is important to be aware that they may encounter drug and alcohol-using peers. According to a 2013 report on drug use among Ontario students conducted by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, about 75% of grade 12 students report using alcohol in the past year. Of the same group, 40% of those surveyed reported binge drinking at least once in the past month (in this study, “binge-drinking” is defined as 5 or more drinks on one occasion). Further, 50% of grade 12 students reported using cannabis in the past year, and 15% report past year cigarette use (Boak, Hamilton, Adlaf & Mann, 2013).

Alcohol, cannabis, and nicotine tend to be the first three drugs that young people experiment with. This is due to both availability and popularity of the substances.As parents, it is important for us to be aware when our children are experimenting so that we can have open and honest conversations with them about drugs, alcohol, and safety. The difficulty is that so many of the signs and symptoms of drug and alcohol use could also be typical adolescent behaviour or indications of other mental health issues.
Given this, the need for an ongoing dialogue about drug and alcohol use with our adolescent children is heightened, as missing these indicators may lead to further complications down the road.

Signs of Adolescent Drug and Alcohol Use:

  • Sudden and extreme changes in appetite, potentially leading to significant weight loss or gain (generally speaking, stimulants such as cocaine and methamphetamine suppress appetite while drugs; marijuana and alcohol can increase it)
  • New group of friends, and a separation from the old ones that you knew
  • Mood changes and emotional instability
  • Lack of motivation, not caring about school work
  • Increase in energy followed by long periods of sleep
  • Increased insistence on privacy
  • Lack of money, or a sudden abundance of money (could indicate drug trafficking)
  • A previously focused and organized child suddenly acting disorganized and unfocused
  • Use of eye drops such as Visine (marijuana can cause very blood-shot eyes) or incense or perfumes (to cover up smell of alcohol or smoke)
  • Staying out late
  • A sudden change in the parent-child relationship; a child you were very close and open with begins to keep secrets

If you suspect that your child is using drugs or alcohol, here are a few tips for how to talk about this with them:

  1. Avoid confronting your child when you believe he or she is under the influence; you will have a much more fruitful conversation when they are sober as drugs and alcohol impair our judgement
  2. Set and maintain consistent consequence for use that are logical, proportional and appropriate; try involving your child in establishing consequences i.e. “what do you think would be an appropriate consequence for this behaviour?”
  3. Avoid being patronizing or judgmental; our children need to know that we love them, but will not tolerate their behaviour
  4. Avoid making threats that you are not prepared to follow through with; substance-using children need boundaries that are clear and consistent.
  5. Do not clean up your child’s mistakes. They need to feel the consequences of their behaviour so that they can learn from it. Negative behaviour must be met with consequences, while positive behaviour is met with reinforcements. This is the basis of prominent behavioural-learning theories
  6. Remember that you do not need to handle this alone; you are most effective as a parent when you are aware, educated and supported.

Psychologist at Clinic on DupontBy: Kate Best (formerly Ruby-Sachs), M.S.W., R.S.W.

Kate Best is a Registered Social Worker who specializes in the treatment of addiction, anxiety, depression and relationship issues. She received her Masters degree in Social Work at Columbia University.

Posted February 14, 2017
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