I’m often asked by concerned parents and other individuals who have regular contact with young people: “Is it possible to recognize when a teen, or even a younger child, has a drug or alcohol problem? What should I look for?” The short answer is yes, it is possible; but the longer answer can be much more complicated. That’s because it is not unusual for older people to be completely unaware of a young person’s involvement or dependence on alcohol or other drugs.

One reason is that as adults, while seeking to maintain a healthy amount of oversight, we also want to support our children’s growth toward independence. Another complicating factor is that for young people, adolescents in particular, dramatic mood swings, engaging with new friends, and exploring different interests is a normal part of growing up.

That said, a number of subtle and not so subtle behaviors could indicate that a young person in your life is dependent, or becoming dependent, on alcohol or other drugs:

  • A noticeable decline in school performance (grades, attendance, etc.)
  • Changes in physical appearance, hygiene, or overall style
  • A change in sleep patterns, or odd sleeping habits
  • Loss of ambition
  • Dropping out of activities and hobbies that were once top priorities
  • Not introducing you to new friends, or a sudden change in friends or peer group
  • Secretive behavior, lying, missing curfews
  • Stealing money or valuables from the home—or the sudden unexplained availability of money 
  • Appearing depressed or agitated.

Fortunately, young people can be treated successfully for problems with alcohol or other drugs. In fact, treatment at a young age can help prevent serious drug-related physical and psychiatric problems that accumulate over time—including some that are irreversible.

A good rule of thumb is to make sure to establish clear rules and expectations that prohibit drinking and using drugs. At the same time, be sure to keep the lines of communication open with young people. Do not hesitate to ask questions and express concern if you suspect there’s a problem with alcohol or other drugs. Offer your support in a non-judgmental way.

One of the best things we can do for teens and other young people is help them avoid the many pitfalls of alcohol and drug abuse—or help them get into treatment and recovery before the obvious negative consequences begin to pile up.