Look for Warning Signs

Figuring out if your child is using drugs or alcohol can be challenging. Many of the signs and symptoms are, at times, typical teen or young adult behavior. Many are also symptoms of mental health issues, including depression or anxiety disorders. Explore our parent Drug Guide for even more substance-specific warning signs.

If you’ve noticed any of the described changes or behaviors in your child, don’t be afraid to err on the side of caution. Prepare to take action and have a conversation during which you can ask direct questions like “Have you been drinking or using drugs?” While no parent wants to hear “yes,” being prepared for how you would respond can be the starting point for a more positive outcome.

The signs were vividly present yet camouflaged with aspects of what appeared to be just teenage behaviors. Looking back I realized, with great anguish, how my stepdaughter’s disease of addiction manifested right before our very eyes.

Linda Quirk, mother/stepmother of 3

Linda Quirk

Of course, not every child is inclined to confess and a “no” could also mean they’re in need of help for other reasons, including a mental health issue. In either case, experts strongly recommend that you consider getting a professional assessment with your child’s primary care doctor or a clinical psychologist to find out what’s going on.

Behavioral Changes

  • Has changed relationships with family members or friends
  • Uses chewing gum or mints to cover up breath
  • Often uses over-the-counter preparations to reduce eye reddening or nasal irritation
  • Frequently breaks curfew
  • Has cash flow problems
  • Drives recklessly, and has car accidents or unexplained dents in the car
  • Avoids eye contact
  • Locks doors
  • Goes out every night
  • Makes secretive phone calls
  • Makes endless excuses
  • Has the “munchies” or sudden appetite
  • Exhibits uncharacteristically loud, obnoxious behavior
  • Laughs at nothing
  • Has become unusually clumsy: stumbling, lacking coordination, poor balance
  • Disappears for long periods of time
  • Has periods of sleeplessness or high energy, followed by long periods of “catch up” sleep


Mood & Personality Shifts

  • Exhibits mood changes or emotional instability
  • Sullen, withdrawn, depressed
  • Shows loss  of inhibitions
  • Silent, uncommunicative
  • Hostile, angry, uncooperative
  • Deceitful or secretive
  • Less motivated
  • Unable to focus
  • Hyperactive
  • Unusually elated


Hygiene & Appearance Problems

  • Smell of smoke or other unusual smells on breath or on clothes
  • Messy appearance
  • Poor hygiene
  • Red, flushed cheeks or face
  • Track marks on arms or legs (or long sleeves in warm weather to hide marks)
  • Burns or soot on fingers or lips (from “joints” or “roaches” burning down)


Health Issues

  • Unusually tired
  • Lethargic movement
  • Unable to speak intelligibly, slurred speech, or rapid-fire speech
  • Nosebleeds
  • Runny nose, not caused by allergies or a cold
  • Frequent sickness
  • Sores, spots around mouth
  • Seizures
  • Vomiting
  • Wetting lips or excessive thirst (known as “cotton mouth”)
  • Sudden or dramatic weight loss or gain
  • Skin abrasions/bruises
  • Accidents or injuries
  • Depression
  • Headaches
  • Sweatiness


School and Work Concerns

  • Absenteeism or loss of interest
  • Loss of interest in extracurricular activities, hobbies or sports
  • Failure to fulfill responsibilities at school or work
  • Complaints from teachers or supervisors
  • Reports of intoxication at school or work


At Home and in the Car

  • Disappearance of prescription or over-the-counter pills
  • Missing alcohol or cigarettes
  • Disappearance of money or valuables
  • Receiving unusual packages in the mail
  • Smell in the car or bottles, pipes or bongs on floor or in glove box
  • Appearance of unusual containers or wrappers, or seeds left on surfaces used to clean marijuana
  • Appearance of unusual drug apparatuses, including pipes, rolling papers, small medicine bottles, eye drops, butane lighters, or makeshift smoking devices, like bongs made out of toilet paper rolls and aluminum foil
  • Hidden stashes of alcohol

You can never be too safe or speak up too soon.

Even if you think they’re just “experimenting.” Download our Intervention eBook, our comprehensive guide to having a productive conversation on drug and alcohol use with your child.

Intervention eBook