Stages and Warning Signs of Substance Abuse

By The Complete Guide to Family Health, Nutrition & Fitness
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email
Focus on the Family
Behaviors parents might notice if their teen or preteen is using drugs.

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:

  • Use is occasional, sporadic, often unplanned — weekends, summer nights, unsupervised parties.
  • Use is precipitated by peer pressure, curiosity, thrill-seeking, desire to look and feel grown-up.
  • Gateway drugs are usually used — cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana, possibly inhalants.
  • A drug high is easier to experience because tolerance has not been developed.

Parents may notice:

  • Tobacco or alcohol on the breath or intoxicated behavior.
  • Little change in normal behavior between episodes of drug use.

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

Characteristics:

  • Alcohol and other drugs are used not only on weekends but also on weekdays, and not only with friends but when alone.
  • Quantities of alcohol and drugs increase as tolerance develops; hangovers become more common.
  • Blackouts — periods of time in which drugs or alcohol prevent normal memories from forming — may occur. “What happened last night?” becomes a frequent question.
  • More time and attention are focused on when the next drug experience will occur.
  • Fellow drinkers/drug users become preferred companions.

Parents may notice:

  • A son or daughter will be out of the house later at night, overnight or all weekend.
  • Unexplained school absences and deteriorating school performance.
  • Outside activities such as sports are dropped.
  • Decreased contact with friends who don’t use drugs.
  • Disappearance of money or other valuables.
  • Withdrawal from the family, and an increasingly sullen and hostile attitude.
  • The user is caught in one or many lies.

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

Characteristics:

  • Alcohol and drugs become the primary focus of attention.
  • Becoming high is a daily event.
  • A willingness to try more dangerous drugs or combinations of drugs.
  • More money is spent each week on drugs. Theft or dealing may become part of drug-seeking behavior.
  • Increasing social isolation and loss of contact with non-drug-using friends. More drug use in isolation, rather than at parties or with other users.

Parents may notice the behaviors listed earlier, plus:

  • Escalation of conflicts at home.
  • Loss of nearly all control of the adolescent.
  • Possible discovery of a stash of drugs at home.
  • Arrest(s) for possession of and/or dealing drugs or for driving while intoxicated.

Stage four: Drowning in addiction

Characteristics:

  • Constant state of intoxication. Being high or stoned is routine, even at school or a job (if the user even bothers to attend).
  • Blackouts increase in frequency.
  • Physical appearance deteriorates, with noticeable weight loss, infection, and overall poor self-care.
  • Injectable drugs may be part of the user’s routine.
  • Involvement in casual sexual relationships, at times in exchange for drugs.
  • User will likely be involved with theft, dealing and other criminal activity.
  • Guilt, self-hatred and thoughts of suicide increase.

Parents are likely to deal with:

  • Complete loss of control of adolescent’s behavior and escalation of conflict, possibly to the point of violence.
  • Ongoing denial by the user that drugs are a problem.
  • Increasing problems with the law and time spent with police, attorneys, hearings, court officials, etc.
  • Other siblings negatively affected because the family is preoccupied or overwhelmed by consequences of the drug user’s behavior.

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.

Adapted from the Complete Guide to Family Health, Nutrition & Fitness, a Focus on the Family book published by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2006, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.

Share:
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email

You May Also Like

Thank you [field id="first_name"] for signing up to get the free downloads of the Marrying Well Guides. 

Click the image below to access your guide and learn about the counter-cultural, biblical concepts of intentionality, purity, community and Christian compatibility.

(For best results use IE 8 or higher, Firefox, Chrome or Safari)

To stay up-to-date with the latest from Boundless, sign up for our free weekly e-newsletter.


If you have any comments or questions about the information included in the Guide, please send them to [email protected]

Click here to return to Boundless

Focus on the Family

Thank you for submitting this form. You will hear from us soon. 

The Daily Citizen

The Daily Citizen from Focus on the Family exists to be your most trustworthy news source. Our team of analysts is devoted to giving you timely and relevant analysis of current events and cultural trends – all from a biblical worldview – so that you can be inspired and assured that the information you share with others comes from a reliable source.

Alive to Thrive is a biblical guide to preventing teen suicide. Anyone who interacts with teens can learn how to help prevent suicidal thinking through sound practical and clinical advice, and more importantly, biblical principles that will provide a young person with hope in Christ.

Bring Your Bible to School Day Logo Lockup with the Words Beneath

Every year on Bring Your Bible to School Day, students across the nation celebrate religious freedom and share God’s love with their friends. This event is designed to empower students to express their belief in the truth of God’s Word–and to do so in a respectful way that demonstrates the love of Christ.

Focus on the Family’s® Foster Care and Adoption program focuses on two main areas:

  • Wait No More events, which educate and empower families to help waiting kids in foster care

  • Post-placement resources for foster and adoptive families

Christian Counselors Network

Find Christian Counselors, Marriage & Family Therapists, Psychologists, Social Workers and Psychiatrists near you! Search by location, name or specialty to find professionals in Focus on the Family’s Christian Counselors Network who are eager to assist you.

Boundless is a Focus on the Family community for Christian young adults who want to pursue faith, relationships and adulthood with confidence and joy.

Through reviews, articles and discussions, Plugged In exists to shine a light on the world of popular entertainment while giving you and your family the essential tools you need to understand, navigate and impact the culture in which we live.

Have you been looking for a way to build your child’s faith in a fun and exciting way?
Adventures in Odyssey® audio dramas will do just that. Through original audio stories brought to life by actors who make you feel like part of the experience; these fictional, character-building dramas use storytelling to teach lasting truths.

Focus on the Family’s Hope Restored all-inclusive intensives offer marriage counseling for couples who are facing an extreme crisis in their marriage, and who may even feel they are headed for divorce.