Youth Drug Use and Prevention: 5 Tips for Parents

Parent looking into teen's bedroom as teen is sitting on the bed

Dear Selfless Esteem,
I think my teenager is using drugs. What should I do?
Prudent Parent

Dear Prudent Parent,

First of all, I imagine you’re feeling anxious and afraid. Although that’s normal, it’s important to remain calm while addressing the topic with your teenager. Read on for 5 suggestions of what to do if you think your teenager is using drugs. And if anyone has more ideas, feel free to share them in the comment section. ✍

Please be advised that the information provided is sensitive, especially because there are so many heartbreaking circumstances related to substance use. But the main purpose of this post is to increase awareness and help prevent teen substance use.

1. Look for Possible Signs of Substance Use

The following are signs that your teenager may be using substances; they are not definite indicators:

  • no longer participating in their usual activities
  • spending time with a different group of friends
  • risky behaviors
  • extreme changes in mood
  • decline in grades and school attendance
  • changes in appetite
  • changes in sleep
  • poor hygiene
  • drastic changes in appearance and style

For more signs, including physical signs and other info, see PsychCentral’s post, “What Causes Teen Drug Use?” The article, “Teenagers and Drugs,” by MedlinePlus of the National Library of Medicine covers signs, how to talk to teenagers regarding substance use, and how to get help.

In the following video, US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Special Agent Timothy P. McMahon demonstrates how a youth could hide drug paraphernalia in a mock bedroom. Mr. McMahon acknowledges that some parents don’t want to invade their teenager’s privacy, yet he advises them to check the bedroom either in the teenager’s presence or not for safety reasons.

“Hidden in Plain Sight: An Interactive Drug Education Program for Parents” by the DEA

2. Get Professional Help

As mentioned, the signs listed are not definite indicators. In any case, a team of professionals can help if you have concerns about your teenager’s mood and behavior.

As soon as possible, get a physical exam for your teenager to rule out any medical problems. You may also consider asking the physician about doing a drug screening. See the American Academy of Pediatrics for more information about this process.

And find a competent therapist to explore any stressors or underlying needs. (See “What Is Wise Counsel and Good Therapy?”) The therapist can also provide psychoeducation and any referrals to other professionals or treatment modalities. Additionally, you and/or your teenager can text HOME to 741741 to access the Crisis Text Line for free 24/7 support.

SAMHSA’s (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or TTY: 1-800-487-4889, provides referrals to local treatment, support groups, and other organizations for mental health and/or substance use issues. It’s confidential and it’s available 24/7 in English and Spanish. You can also visit the online treatment locator or send your zip code via text message to HELP4U (435748) to find services in your area. Los Angeles County has a Mental Health Toolkit for Teens, which includes local resources and some national ones.

Furthermore, I recommend that you have your own individual therapy as an outlet for your thoughts and feelings. The therapist can help you navigate through this time and refer you to parenting support groups. (You may also be interested in “6 Effective Ways To Manage Stress.”)

3. Learn About Different Types of Substances

woman using laptop

Learn about marijuana, cannabis concentrates, opioids, and other commonly used drugs and their effects. Plus, learn to recognize their appearance, which may deceptively look similar to candy, and sometimes the packaging has artwork that appeals to youth. For adolescents, SAMHSA has free “Tips for Teens” publications on a variety of subjects, including substances.

The most dangerous drug, fentanyl, has tragically become more prevalent; the number of pills containing fentanyl seized by law enforcement in the US increased astronomically from 290,304 in 2018 to 9,649,551 in 2021. Laced and Lethal has information about pills and powder laced with fentanyl and how to spot and stop an overdose. Also, Los Angeles County has a Fentanyl 101 training and a Resource Toolkit for Parents.

Vaping has become popular especially because of the flavors in the vapor, such as mint and mango. But unfortunately, it also contains carcinogens, toxic metal nanoparticles from the e-liquid and vaping device, and the harmful effect of whatever drug(s) they’re inhaling.

Three more reasons why vaping has become popular are 1) the smell isn’t very detectable, 2) the device can be disguised (e.g., as a USB drive), and 3) some devices are disposable, so the teenagers don’t have to store/hide them.

Thus, learn to recognize various vaping devices and e-cigarettes. For information on quitting vaping, see the Truth.

Lastly, check out Just Think Twice for its inspirational stories of recovery from various substances and other information. If anyone knows of any other good sites, please share them in the comments below.

4. Have an Open Discussion with Your Teenager

Resist the temptation to give a lecture. Instead, have brief conversations, in which you clearly express your values, listen to your teenager, and express unconditional love.

“Talk. They Hear You.”® campaign resources are useful guides for starting and maintaining a discussion with your teenager about the harmful consequences of substances. For more tips, including conversation starters, see the DEA’s Operation Prevention and “Raising Drug-Free Young People.”

Because youth typically interact with others through their phones and social media, Cyber Safety Cop has articles and courses for parents about Internet safety. Also, the DEA has a list of emoji drug codes decoded.

5. Pray

hands clasped in prayer

Even if you do everything perfectly, teenagers have free will to make their own choices. If your teenager chooses to use substances, don’t blame yourself or feel bad about missing any warning signs.

Therefore, be sure to pray in every circumstance to the God of wisdom (Job 12:13 NIV) and comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3 NIV). Stormie Omartian is an excellent author, and her book “The Power of a Praying Parent” is about how to pray for your children. (Also, see the post “How To Pray in 5 Simple Steps”.)

And so, I close with Psalm 62:8 NIV: “Trust in him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge.”🙏

All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New King James Version®. Copyright © 1984 by Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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One Comment

  1. Michal

    Packed with valuable information and advice. Thanks!

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