How to Spot the Signs and Symptoms of Substance Abuse in Children

Children can experience substance abuse. Here’s how to notice the signs.
July 22, 2021 Updated: July 22, 2021

When we think of substance abuse, we often think of adults. But children are just as susceptible to the reality of addiction as adults—and potentially more so, because their minds and bodies are still developing.

When a child ventures into the territory of substance abuse, they may be doing so for a number of reasons. A chaotic home life, trouble in school, difficulty making or keeping friends, mental illness, and other factors can all contribute to substance abuse in children. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, struggling in school or having poor social skills can be major risk factors for using drugs or becoming addicted to them.

And if a child uses such substances, their ever-changing brain is highly prone to addiction because it’s still so malleable. Research suggests that the human brain is still maturing in significant ways during childhood.

Young brains are particularly vulnerable to the effects of drugs, and drug use during adolescence can significantly increase a child’s risk for developing a substance use disorder later in life. The earlier a person uses drugs, the higher the chances are that they’ll form an addiction.

If you’re concerned that your child is abusing drugs or alcohol, consider the signs and symptoms below.

Behavioral Changes

Pay attention to changes in a child’s behavior. Some of the behavioral changes that might come with substance abuse are self-isolation, aggravation, hostility, defensiveness, or being quiet and unresponsive. They might stumble into their room, slur their words, or experience other impairments that affect their behavior.

Watch how they act when they come home from school, sports practices, when they leave a hangout with a group of friends, and other social engagements. If they’re acting out of the norm, they may be experiencing an issue with substances.

Changes in Appearance

Substance abuse often brings about several appearance changes. A few things you might notice are: dilated or pinpoint pupils, bloodshot eyes, poor hygiene, weight loss or gain, messy clothing, flushed cheeks, or sores around their mouth.

You may also notice track marks if they’re shooting up drugs. This is the scarring that results from using intravenous drugs and can usually be seen on the arms, feet, and legs.

Changes in Mood or Emotions

Look for any significant changes in mood and emotions. One of the potential risks of substance abuse is mental illness.

Have they been showing signs of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, or some other mental disorder? Mental illness and substance abuse are often interconnected: Substance abuse can develop as a result of mental illness, and mental illness can also lead to substance abuse.

A child who’s abusing drugs might have frequent mood swings, have difficulty regulating their emotions, have outbursts, feel depressed, withdraw from friends and family, or act unusually energetic. Certain mood changes vary based on the substance being abused, such as if it’s an upper, such as Adderall or cocaine, or a downer, such as alcohol or benzodiazepines.

Changes in Eating, Sleeping, and Other Routines

Changes in routines may also be a sign of substance abuse in children. This can look like difficulty sleeping or insomnia, oversleeping and being late for school, over or under eating, skipping club meetings or practices, or a lack of motivation.

If your child usually loves going to their piano lessons or another activity and suddenly has no interest in pursuing the things they enjoy, they could be struggling with substance abuse. Watch for significant changes in their routines and normal living patterns.

Finding Drug Paraphernalia

Drug paraphernalia might be found under the bed, in a small box, hidden in the closet, under floorboards, or in school books. If a child is being secretive or keeping personal items such as backpacks close, they might be trying to hide something.

Examples of drug paraphernalia include needles or syringes, bottles, pipes, small spoons, bongs, rolling papers, prescription drug bottles, and other items. A child might have obtained one of these items through peers, ordering something online, or from their own home.

What Do I Do If My Child Is Abusing Drugs?

At first, it might be best to do nothing. If you discover that your child has been abusing substances, chances are you’re feeling scared, angry, and a range of other emotions. Take some time to breathe and process through it, and then think about the next steps. It’s easy to react out of emotion when it comes to serious issues like this, with our kids at the brunt of it.

Consider why your child might have turned to substances. Are they being bullied in school? Have they been struggling silently with depression or some other mental illness? Did they find it difficult to cope with a major life change? There are many reasons adolescents turn to substances for answers and comfort.

Try to open up a conversation with them and talk through the reasons why they might be abusing substances before jumping into action. Search their room and possessions if you feel it’s necessary, and explain your reasoning to your child so they can understand the heart behind the matter. Because at the end of the day, a child’s health and safety are of the utmost importance, especially when it involves substance use

Hannah Bennett is a content specialist for AddictionResource.net, an informational guide that equips those struggling with addiction and their loved ones with resources on substance abuse, mental health, and more.