Addiction is defined as the continued use of a mood-altering substance or behavior despite adverse consequences, or a neurological impairment leading to such behaviors. Some people can use alcohol or drugs and never become addicted or suffer negative consequences. Others struggle greatly with addiction.

Several factors play a part in addiction, including family and social environment, overall mental health, genetics, and family history of addiction. It often is not the case that those with a family history choose not to abuse alcohol or drugs. Many individuals exposed to substance abuse and addiction grow up to be addicts, even if their drug of choice is different.

A history of trauma may contribute to the development of addiction. This trauma can include any form of abuse or exposure to any traumatic events. If the trauma is not addressed, individuals may try to suppress their feelings. This leads to poor coping skills and poor stress management. Using drugs can be a form of stress management.

The early use of drugs also may be a factor. Research has shown that individuals who begin to experiment at a young age have a higher chance of addiction later in life. This is why it is important to notice early the signs of substance abuse in teens and young adults. Most individuals begin abusing at least one substance before becoming full-blown addicts. Recognizing these early signs may allow parents to intervene before their teen moves from abuse to dependence.

Below are several warning signs indicating that your teen is abusing alcohol or other drugs:

  • Changes in appetite or sleep patterns.This could be characterized by a marked increase or decrease in either or both. For example, individuals abusing amphetamines may show a diminished need for sleep and food. Those abusing marijuana may sleep more and have an increased appetite.These effects may vary depending upon the drug being abused. If you are interested in the effects of specific drug use, you may want to conduct some online research or call your local drug and alcohol commission or mental health clinic for more specific information.
  • Deterioration of physical appearance. Typical teenagers are very concerned about the way they look to peers and friends and may be very specific about clothing, makeup, and overall hygiene. Individuals abusing substances often start to focus less on their physical appearance as their substance use increases.
  • Withdrawal from social or important activities. You may notice your teen stops showing interest in things he or she once found pleasurable. For example, they may start missing school or participate less in sporting events or other social activities. They may also stop attending family functions or gatherings such as church because their drug use has become more important, or they may be embarrassed and try to hide their use from others.
  • Unexplained need for money or secretive about spending habits. Individuals abusing drugs may begin asking for money without a clear reason. Generally an abuser will not ask for very large amounts, but rather small amounts over periods of time. They may also become more secretive about spending habits. For example, he or she may claim to need more for something than they actually need and pocket the extra money.
  • Sudden change in friends or locations. The abuser’s friends or hangout spots may change. For example, a teen may start hanging out with a different crowd of friends. You may notice where they hang out may change as well. They may suddenly think their old friends are no longer “cool.” They also may start to break curfew or lie about where they are hanging out.
  • Increased interpersonal or legal problems. Individuals abusing substances may start having more interpersonal problems, i.e., increased arguments with parents, friends, or other authority figures. They may begin to get in legal trouble for shoplifting or other crimes and cited for possession or underage drinking.
  • Change in personality or attitude. This one can be a little tricky. Given the raging hormones of teenagers, personality and attitudes can change regularly. In someone abusing substances, this will look a little different. The mood swings would be unlike typical teenage attitudes. Depending on the substance being abused, you may begin to notice marked hyperactivity or extreme happiness followed by a “crash” where the mood becomes just the opposite. The individual may appear very lethargic or more irritable than usual. Thinking and behaviors may become irrational and unpredictable.
  • Neglecting responsibilities. If your teen is normally very responsible and there is a change in that behavior, this may be a sign. Substance abuse often begins to take precedence over other things that were once deemed important. As a result, responsibilities are often neglected and the teen becomes more and more irresponsible over time.
  • Using despite knowing it is dangerous. Most teens are very aware of the negative effects and possible consequences of substance use. If your teen is using despite this knowledge, this is a sign of abuse.

If you notice any of these signs, it may be time to talk to someone – starting with your teen. Approach them in a non-confrontational, non-threatening manner. Remember, the object of the conversation is to get them to talk to you, not for them to shut down.

If you suspect drug use, even if you think it’s just a little – start talking. If you realize your teen does have a substance abuse issue, don’t be afraid to seek help. Drug use is typically an “escape” for teens. It’s important to seek help for the drug use, but more important, to find the cause of it. You may wish to seek out a private counselor or find your local drug and alcohol treatment facility. Most facilities are well-equipped to work with teenagers with substance abuse issues.

Substance abuse is something that can and likely will get worse over time. Be proactive and remember that a short conversation could be the one thing that keeps your teen from full-blown addiction.