Is my teen ‘on something?’ Teen Substance misuse during COVID-19   

Is my teen ‘on something?’ Teen Substance misuse during COVID-19   

It’s not news the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about changes to all our lives, and teens are no exception. All at once they were ripped away from their friends, sports, church groups, school clubs, jobs and other social supports. Although school has resumed, life is massively different. With these new challenges, some teens have turned to substances to cope with the difficulties they face.

Because the teenage brain is still developing those who misuse drugs or alcohol are at a higher risk of developing a substance dependence or addiction. Therefore, it is important for parents and caregivers to intervene early because early use places teens more at risk of developing a Substance Use Disorder. Commonly misused substances that are popular with teenagers are alcohol, marijuana, over the counter medication containing Dextromethorphan (DXM), Benzodiazepines, Attention Deficit Disorder medication and LSD or Acid. There are five things for parents and caregivers to pay attention to that may indicate a teenager has a problem.

  1. Losing interest in hobbies and activities. If a teen shows little to no interest in things they previously enjoyed, it may be an indication that they have become preoccupied with substance use.
  2. Change in friend group. Peer relationships are very important to teens. A change in a friend group could indicate substance use, especially if members of the new group condone or encourage use.
  3. Increase in isolation and other suspicious behaviors. A teen or young adult who once was  engaged in family activities who is now isolating to their bedroom, bathroom, or basement could be using.  Other behaviors to be aware of include asking for money or stealing, excessive cologne or perfume use to cover unusual smells, secretive calls/texts, or sneaking out of the house.
  4. Physical changes. Substance use takes a physical toll on the body. Depending on which substance is being used, psychical changes could include rapid weight change, poor hygiene, glazed or red eyes, changes in pupil size, poor balance, cold sweats and seizures.
  5. Change in personality. Extreme changes in personality could indicate a teen has increased their substance use. Characteristics often associated with substance use include anxiety, irritability, paranoia, depression, anger, rage, defensiveness and blaming others.

By no means does this suggest all teenagers exhibiting these signs are using drugs or alcohol. There are many other reasons a teenager could be experiencing these changes. However, if you notice these changes, it is a good reason to become curious and have a bigger conversation about the teen’s wellbeing. Here are some tips for talking to teens about concerns.

  1. Ask questions. Don’t accuse. Stay curious and ask open -ended questions.
  2. Be calm. How you react to the teen’s answers will determine if they will continue to confide in you.
  3. Have a plan. Be thoughtful. Select an appropriate time, place and setting to talk with your teen.
  4. Use “I” language. Avoid accusations. Speak from your perspective stating, “I have noticed…”, “I am concerned….” “I am curious….”, etc.

If you do discover your teenager is struggling with drug or alcohol use, CHRIS 180’s TREE House Program is here to support you and your adolescent.  The TREE House Program is a no-cost substance use treatment program serving youth ages 13-24 who live in the greater Atlanta area.  The program offers a range of treatment options including early intervention, intensive outpatient aftercare, individual and family counseling, as well as many other services. For more information and to schedule an assessment call 404- 636-1457 or email [email protected].

Jennifer Acker MA, NCC, LPC is the Program Director of CHRIS 180’s TREE House Program, located at CHRIS Counseling Center-DeKalb and funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).


Jennifer Acker MA, NCC, LPC
[email protected]
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