As parents you may never stop worrying about your children, and while it’s great that your teen can handle a lot of life activities on his or her own now, that independence often creates new worries. You can’t keep an eye on your teen 24 hours a day — nor should you, since trying new things and experiencing independent failures and successes are important parts of growing and maturing. What do you do when your teen hits the most awkward stages of adolescence and you have a hard time telling the difference between so-called “normal” teen behavior and potential warning signs of drug use or mental health issues?
Build a strong foundation of communication and love
First, it’s important to note that you can’t always look to what some people call “normal” as a valid measurement tool. That’s especially true in this age of social media and constant communication. What other parents say their teens are doing — or aren’t doing — doesn’t necessarily mean anything about your own teen’s behavior. If you’ve spent quality time communicating with your child through the years, then you know him or her and, even in the angst of the teen years, you have some baseline of what normal behavior might be for them. When you’re trying to determine whether warning signs for drug or mental health issues are present, don’t compare your child to other teenagers.
Second, try to foster an environment of love and open, honest communication in your home. This makes it more likely that your teen might come to you with issues.
Look for trends in behavior
Even in a loving environment with a history of open communication, teens can try to hide issues such as drug use or feelings of depression for a variety of reasons. They might not want to disappoint loved ones, might feel ashamed or abnormal, or might not want to worry parents who are struggling with life stresses. As a parent, that means you should be aware of how your teen acts and reacts to things and look for concerning trends in behavior that can’t be explained completely by hormones or the angst of being a teenager.
Hormones and angst typically cause outbursts of behavior; substance abuse or mental health issues tend to cause trends in behavior. Some warning signs for substance abuse or mental health issues might include:
- Sudden or unexplained failures in school
- Ongoing changes in a teen’s motivation to attend to academic, extracurricular, work or social matters
- Changes in hygiene or self care
- Problems with concentration, memory or focus
- Unexplained physical symptoms such as headaches, muscle aches, stomach aches and shaking
- Ongoing irritability or changes in mood
- Changes in sleep patterns or appetite
Some of these warning signs are also common behavior for many teens. Teens who stay up late at night or are going through a growth spurt might have changes in sleep patterns, for example, and preteen boys often go through a period of poor hygiene. That’s why it’s important to look for trends and multiple warning signs and to try to communicate with your teenager whenever possible.
Understand that experimentation doesn’t always equal a pattern
Some parents do find out that their teenager experimented once or twice with drugs or alcohol. While any use of drugs or alcohol can lead to negative consequences for a teen, experimentation isn’t necessarily a pattern and doesn’t equate to addiction. The National Institute on Drug Abuse notes that many teens who try drugs don’t escalate to a substance abuse disorder or addiction. Educating yourself about drug use and its consequences and engaging your teen in related discussions can help reduce the risks that he or she might move from that first experiment to repeat use.
Don’t be afraid to get advice or help
As a parent, you can’t always stop your teen from getting into trouble with drugs or alcohol, and you certainly can’t protect your child from a mental health issue that could stem from chemical imbalances in the body. If you suspect your teen is struggling with any of these matters, even if you aren’t sure whether you’re seeing warning signs or “normal” teen behavior, don’t be afraid to reach out for help and advice. For some more signs of substance abuse see our websites.
Talk to your teen’s primary care provider, school counselor, pastor or other caring adults. You can also call us any time of the day or night to speak with a caring admissions counselor for a free assessment or insurance verification. (844)319-5239.