Telltale Symptoms Of Children Using Drugs

As drug abuse escalates across the country, it’s imperative that parents, educators, and healthcare providers be knowledgeable of the telltale signs and symptoms of drug abuse in children. This knowledge can be both preventative and protective, empowering these individuals to advocate and find treatment for children and teens in this time of need.

Adolescence is a time of great change. While some changing behaviors may be linked to natural mental or physical transitions experienced during this period, it’s imperative that parents and other adults do not dismiss these signs as only being related to puberty. Too many parents make this mistake, effectively cutting their child off from life-changing care for substance abuse.

What you’ll find in this guide:

Signs of Drug Abuse Within The Home

While drug abuse can affect all areas of an adolescent’s life, its effects are more immediately witnessed in the home by an individual’s parents, siblings, and other close family members.

These signs include the child or teen:

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avoiding conversations with loved ones

E

avoiding family meals and activities

E

becoming overly protective of their bedroom and personal space

(suddenly locking doors)

E

suddenly questioning and defying family beliefs and values

E

lying, becoming evasive, or avoiding eye contact when questioned about activities, friends, or drug use

E

stealing family member’s medications

(money and valuables may also go missing)

E

returning home past curfew

E

using excessive amounts of incense or air freshener in a personal space

E

avoiding conversations with loved ones

E

avoiding family meals and activities

E

becoming overly protective of their bedroom and personal space

(suddenly locking doors)

E

suddenly questioning and defying family beliefs and values

E

lying, becoming evasive, or avoiding eye contact when questioned about activities, friends, or drug use

E

stealing family member’s medications

(money and valuables may also go missing)

E

returning home past curfew

E

using excessive amounts of incense or air freshener in a personal space

Social Signs Of Drug Abuse

Children and teens are just beginning to learn social norms, however, drug abuse can quickly change the way young people interact with the world around them.

Drug-abusing youth may:

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ignore and push away old, non-drug using friends

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adopt new, drug-using “friends”

E

spend time at new events or hangouts

E

get into trouble with the law

E

skip classes or school

E

have failing grades

E

quit extracurricular or athletic groups

E

ignore and push away old, non-drug using friends

E

adopt new, drug-using “friends”

E

spend time at new events or hangouts

E

get into trouble with the law

E

skip classes or school

E

have failing grades

E

quit extracurricular or athletic groups

Behavioral Signs Of Drug Abuse

When a child begins using drugs or alcohol they will exhibit certain behavioral signs of abuse which worsen over time as abuse becomes more severe.

Behavioral signs of drug abuse include:

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believing bugs are crawling beneath the skin

(common with cocaine and meth abuse)

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scratching or picking at the skin

(also from stimulant abuse)

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frequent use of perfume, cologne, breath mints, or gum to mask the smell of alcohol or drugs

E

frequently using eye drops or wearing sunglasses to hide bloodshot eyes or altered pupil size

E

losing interest in favorite hobbies

E

wearing long-sleeved shirts in warm weather

(to cover up signs of injection drug abuse)

E

believing bugs are crawling beneath the skin

(common with cocaine and meth abuse)

E

scratching or picking at the skin

(also from stimulant abuse)

E

frequent use of perfume, cologne, breath mints, or gum to mask the smell of alcohol or drugs

E

frequently using eye drops or wearing sunglasses to hide bloodshot eyes or altered pupil size

E

losing interest in favorite hobbies

E

wearing long-sleeved shirts in warm weather

(to cover up signs of injection drug abuse)

Physical Signs Of Drug Abuse

As soon as a drug enters a person’s system it goes to work changing how the body functions. This action creates a variety of effects, ranging from those which are fairly immediate to those which occur after long-term, chronic use. The physical effects of substance abuse vary per person, per drug, by the way the drug is administered, and by the amount of drug used.

But in general, the following signs point to drug abuse:

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the body, breath, or clothing carry a strange odor

E

chronic runny nose

(from snorting drugs)

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hyperactivity or excessive bursts of energy

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lethargy or drowsiness

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eyes look different

(bloodshot, glassy, or pupils which are abnormally large or small)

E

nausea, vomiting, or unexplainable gastrointestinal problems

E

poor self-care and grooming

E

seizures in individuals who aren't epileptic

E

unexplainable weight loss or gain

E

shakes or tremors

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trouble speaking

(slurred words or excessively fast talking)

E

impaired coordination and trouble walking

E

unexplainable accidents, injuries, or bruises

(a person may not remember the source of an injury)

E

unusual eating patterns

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sleeping at odd hours of the day or sleeping very little

E

chronic nosebleeds

(from snorting drugs)

E

the body, breath, or clothing carry a strange odor

E

chronic runny nose

(from snorting drugs)

E

hyperactivity or excessive bursts of energy

E

lethargy or drowsiness

E

eyes look different

(bloodshot, glassy, or pupils which are abnormally large or small)

E

nausea, vomiting, or unexplainable gastrointestinal problems

E

poor self-care and grooming

E

seizures in individuals who aren't epileptic

E

unexplainable weight loss or gain

E

shakes or tremors

E

trouble speaking

(slurred words or excessively fast talking)

E

impaired coordination and trouble walking

E

unexplainable accidents, injuries, or bruises

(a person may not remember the source of an injury)

E

unusual eating patterns

E

sleeping at odd hours of the day or sleeping very little

E

chronic nosebleeds

(from snorting drugs)

Mental Signs Of Drug Abuse

Drugs change the way a person experiences reward and pleasure, feelings which drive compulsive and addictive behaviors. Drugs and alcohol do this by altering levels of chemical neurotransmitters in the brain, most notably dopamine.

As a person tries to recreate these pleasurable effects, the brain suffers. Drug abuse creates mental changes from the first use, however, prolonged use can cause serious and long-term effects.

The psychological signs of drug abuse include:

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agitation

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aggressive or confrontational behavior

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angry outbursts

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confusion

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crying spells

E

hostility

E

an inability to focus

E

irritability

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laughing for no apparent reason

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little to no motivation

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memory problems

E

paranoia

E

personality changes

E

poor judgment

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poor motivation

E

rapidly shifting moods

E

“spacing out”

E

agitation

E

aggressive or confrontational behavior

E

angry outbursts

E

confusion

E

crying spells

E

hostility

E

an inability to focus

E

irritability

E

laughing for no apparent reason

E

little to no motivation

E

memory problems

E

paranoia

E

personality changes

E

poor judgement

E

poor motivation

E

rapidly shifting moods

E

“spacing out”

Chronic drug abuse can worsen and even cause numerous mental health disorders like anxiety, depression, and antisocial personality disorder. It can also cause a person to feel emotionally numb or experience an inability to feel pleasure when sober. Certain drugs or symptoms of withdrawal have been known to cause suicidal thoughts.

Paraphernalia

Drug paraphernalia are items used to use, store, or transport drugs.
These items can be one of the most telltale indicators of drug abuse.

Examples of paraphernalia include:

For storing or transporting:

Paraphernalia may be stored in a small kit or case. Balloons, cigarette cellophanes, empty medicine bottles, plastic baggies, small foil packages, and tiny, square, folded paper envelopes (bindles) are all used to store and transport drugs.

For inhaling:

If an adolescent is using inhalants they may have balloons, rags, or nozzles on hand to help them inhale, “huff,” or sniff a substance. The inhalants themselves will seem massively out of place in a child’s personal space. These may include containers or canisters of the following:

Drug paraphernalia for inhaling drugs.
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aerosol whipped cream

E

gasoline

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glue

E

lighter fluid

E

nitrous oxide

E

paint thinner or remover

E

permanent markers

E

spray paint

Paraphernalia For Snorting Drugs

For snorting:

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CD cases and small mirrors

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jewelry containing a hidden compartments

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razor blades

E

snuff bullets

E

tiny spoons to snort the drug off of

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rolled dollar bills, cut-off straws, or hollowed-out pens for snorting drugs through

For smoking:

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cigars

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bongs

E

e-cigarettes

E

roach clips

E

pipes

(acrylic, ceramic, glass, metal, plastic, stone, or wood)

E

rolling papers

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tin foil

For injecting:

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acidic substances like citric acid, lemon juice, or Vitamin C

(used to dissolve the drug)

E

cigarette filters or cotton balls to strain the drug

E

needles or syringes

E

rubbing alcohol or swabs

E

spoon for heating and liquefying the drug

E

tourniquets, such as a belt, rubber tubing, or straps

Individuals who abuse club-drugs like ecstasy, MDMA, or Molly may carry:

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glow sticks

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dust masks or surgical masks

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lollipops or pacifiers

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bags of candy to disguise pills in

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glow sticks

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dust masks or surgical masks

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lollipops or pacifiers

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bags of candy to disguise pills in

Why Do Children Experiment With Drugs?

Adolescence is a time of great experimentation as a child attempts to better understand the world around them. While some experimentation is healthful, others, like drug abuse, can be very dangerous and even deadly.

Drug abuse most typically stems from a child’s desire to fit in, to create feelings of pleasure, to self-medicate, or to experiment. Some youth use prescription stimulant ADHD medications to enhance academic or athletic performance.

What Types Of Drug Abuse Are Most Common Among Children?

Youth abuse alcohol and tobacco most heavily, followed by marijuana. Younger adolescents have been shown to prefer inhalants. Individuals who continue using drugs progress to other illegal substances while often remaining active alcohol and tobacco abusers. The 2017 Monitoring the Future Survey found that lifetime rates of illicit drug abuse aside from marijuana were as follows:

%

8th grade

%

10th grade

%

12th grade

Older teens gravitate more frequently towards prescription medications like opioid painkillers and ADHD stimulant medications. Synthetic marijuana is also used more commonly by older teens.

Highest Risk Periods For Youth Drug Abuse

Periods of major transition within a child’s life hold the highest risk of initiation into drug abuse. These include educational, emotional, and social changes. Changes within the family, like divorce or moving, may also prompt episodes of alcohol or drug abuse.

Early adolescence, or the period when a child moves from elementary to middle school, is quite commonly the first time when many children confront drug abuse. Certain children begin experimenting with drugs and alcohol around age 12 or 13. Some children may experience drug abuse at ages younger than this.

Childhood Drug Abuse Increases Risk Of Addiction

Experimenting with drugs or alcohol isn’t a harmless pastime. Certain drugs, like cocaine, heroin, and many prescription medications, form addiction fast. Because of this, even intermittent, casual use can quickly turn to addiction.

Individuals who use drugs at young ages have been shown to have higher rates of substance use disorders down the road. Even prescribed use during this transitional time may increase rates of addiction down the road.

Childhood Drug Abuse Increases Risk Of Addiction

Addiction is a disease of the brain which causes long-lasting changes to the brain’s structure and chemistry. The resulting changes can alter a person’s behavior and upend their life. These effects make it difficult for a person to create and maintain stability within their health, family, and social lives, impacts which can be felt long after childhood.

Prevention And Treatment

How To Talk To A Child Or Teen About Drug Abuse

This is a very important conversation, and because of this, it’s important to consider what to say before approaching a child. Having the conversation about drug abuse won’t be easy, but it could prevent a child from going down a road which ends in addiction or overdose.

How To Talk To A Child Or Teen About Drug Abuse

Here’s some things to keep in mind:

  • talk to the child or teen when they’re sober
  • express concern in a spirit of love and support without making accusations
  • express how much the person matters
  • provide reasons or examples of behavior which are of concern
  • reinforce why drug abuse is harmful
  • anticipate emotional reactions and stay calm
  • seek expert help
Preventing Drug Abuse In Children And Teens

Preventing Drug Abuse In Children And Teens

The key to prevention is active involvement in a child’s life. Strong, open relationships between a child and parent are one of the most important protective factors during this time.

Maintaining an active dialogue about the issues and challenges a child faces is also critical. Setting clear boundaries and consistently disciplining a child helps to provide greater stability and accountability which help deter abuse.

Pursuing treatment is one of the most impactful protective and preventive measures a parent can take on their child’s behalf.

Treatment Should Be Adapted To Each Child’s Needs

Each child entering into treatment should first undergo a complete mental health evaluation. This assessment identifies any co-occurring mental health disorders which may be present. A co-occurring disorder, or dual diagnosis, is a mental health disorder which occurs alongside of addiction. Depression, anxiety, and stress run high within this age group, circumstances which demand integrated, dual diagnosis care.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, boys and girls have different treatment needs due to variances in developmental and social factors.

Treatment Should Be Adapted To Each Child’s Needs

Girls more frequently struggle with mood disorders, such as depression and traumatic stress disorders. They’re also more likely to have a history of physical or sexual abuse. Boys, on the other hand, are more apt to have behavioral, conduct, and learning difficulties, including juvenile justice problems. Rehabilitation programs need to be sensitive to these needs and develop a treatment plan accordingly.

The most effective treatment programs address a person’s emotional and mental health through a combination of researched-based behavioral therapies and peer support programs. Social, academic, and family issues should also be addressed to ensure each child is supported and strengthened in a way which is unique to their life.

Treatment Should Be Adapted To Each Child’s Needs

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