Focus on the Family

Stages and Warning Signs of Substance Abuse

Behaviors parents might notice if their teen or preteen is using drugs.

from The Complete Guide to Family Health, Nutrition & Fitness

Experts in adolescent substance problems have identified a common progression of alcohol- and drug-related behaviors that moves from bad to worse. While it is not a foregone conclusion that everyone who experiments with drugs will progress to the worst stages of involvement, a child can incur a lot of damage before parents or others notice that something is wrong. Secretive adolescent behavior and skillful lying, combined with parental denial ("No one in our family could have a drug problem!"), may delay identification of the problem. While paranoia and daily inquisitions around the breakfast table are counterproductive, wise parents will keep their eyes and ears open and promptly take action if they see any signs that a problem may be developing.

Stage one: Experimentation — entering the drug gateway

Characteristics:

Parents may notice:

Stage two: More regular drug use — leaving the land of the living

Characteristics:

Parents may notice:

Stage three: Waist deep in the mire of addiction — and sinking

Characteristics:

Parents may notice the behaviors listed earlier, plus:

Stage four: Drowning in addiction

Characteristics:

Parents are likely to deal with:

This descent into drug hell is a nightmare that no parent envisions while rocking a newborn baby or escorting an eager 5-year-old to kindergarten. But it can happen in any neighborhood, any church, any family, even when parents have provided a stable and loving home environment. In fact, it is often in such homes that a drug problem goes undetected until it's reached an advanced and dangerous stage. This can't be happening; not in my house! But if it does, parental guilt, anger and depression can undermine the responses necessary to restore order.