The only reliable test for substance use is a drug test. You can test breath, hair, and body fluids, with blood, urine, and saliva being the main fluids. Many reasonable tests can be purchased online and in pharmacies; the better tests are more expensive. Your primary care doctor can draw a blood sample.
But you don’t need a lab in your home to see substance use or addictive behavior, you just need your eyes and willingness to closely observe your child’s life. Remember who they are and what they do and track that over time. I will share with you 13 signs that revealed my and most addict’s spiral into darkness, frustration, and addiction despair. Your teen doesn’t have to exhibit all 13, but any one can be a sign to alert you so you can help them turn the course of their life around so they can avoid bondage to a substance, and instead, be the awesome person God made them to become.
- Change: Probably the single word defining adolescence is CHANGE. Every facet of a teen’s life is undergoing change seemingly on a daily basis, so we don’t want to be overly paranoid when we see change in their lives. The two warning signs of change that raise my antennae of concern are when:
- the changes don’t make sense and they have trouble giving you reasonable explanations for the change, or
- the changes are for the worse and not part of a growing forward or maturing process.
- Overvaluing then undervaluing personal appearance: Teens initially dabbling with substances often feel insecure and either want to fit in, try a new peer clique, or stand out. So appearance is a major way to achieve those goals, but if the substance use continues to addiction, their substance pursuit and use become demoting to their appearance and hygiene. Also, the effects of some substances give weight changes, bloodshot eyes, coordination issues, etc.
- Lame or elaborate excuses: As addictions grow, pursuit, use, and recovery take time and energy and need to be hidden. In order to cover these behaviors up, they need to come up with stories to misdirect you. When they have time to concoct a story, they can be elaborate and hard to see the truth through. But when they are taken by surprise, or get so complacent or could care less, the excuses are poorly thought-out and farfetched.
- Lying and secretive activity: Whether they truly believe using substances is wrong or not, they know for sure they will get in trouble if adults know they use. In order to use in private and avoid detection, a deceitful mentality evolves. This attitude causes them to exhibit secretive behaviors which hide the truth, overtly lie, or skillfully leave out the truth while using other deflecting details. Unfortunately, this mentality is not limited to drug or alcohol-related activities, but when they see what they get away with and are more power-thirsty, it overflows into many other areas of their life.
- Disobeying or disrespecting authority or rules: In order to rationalize their drug or alcohol use and for it to seem right, a teen needs to anoint themselves as the know-it-all authority of their life. To crown themselves, they need to progressively overthrow and reject their previous authorities that taught and espouse morals, values, and the fact that substance use is not only not good for you, but is actually dangerous and often leads to addiction. As their addiction grows, the initial calm disagreement morphs into respectful disobedience, and then to blatant disrespectful defiance of all parental, school, occupational, legal, and spiritual authorities. But it is not limited to just drug-related areas of their life, but disobedience overflows into most, if not all, other aspects of their life as well.
- Relational isolation: As a teen becomes more involved with a substance or an addiction, they develop a dysfunctional relationship with that addiction object and look to it to meet many of their needs. Needing to be secretive, feeling ashamed while fearing conflict or rejection, they start to withdraw from the family. As substances further impair their thinking, emotions, and functioning, friendships start to fade and the only relationships left aren’t friendships but “addiction partners” who supply, support, facilitate, or provide financing for their substance use. True relationship demands consistency, attention, time, effort, interest, and compassion and due to the addiction, the addict is unable to give these, so avoids them and withdraws, falling into a deeper relationship with their addiction.
- Spiritual distance or bizarre application: Christian principles, as well as most faith systems, oppose illegal substance use and any substance or behavioral addiction. If they were raised in the faith, they will either become hyper-religious (for awhile) as a front to hide their addiction, or they will start to become antagonistic toward it. This will start in subtle questions about the relevance of the faith, then excuses to not participate in church activities, then pulling away from their grounded peers, to open non-application and maybe rejection of their faith. They might even put their addiction in spiritual terms claiming it gives them more peace or allows them to connect with God easier.
- Brain circuitry damage: Substances aren’t just bad for you because they are illegal or the use is immoral or against faith standards. Substances are prohibited because they are flat out bad for your body, especially your most vital organ, your brain! ‘Under the Influence’ means exactly what it says. The acute effects are profoundly dangerous. But even worse are the ongoing effects on the brain in the areas of thinking, reality processing (hallucinations or bizarre thoughts), decision-making, risk-reward evaluating, emotions (depression, anger, anxiety), and emotion management, attention, focus, and memory, to name a few. The health and skillful development of the brain determines the course of your life, so why willfully damage it and incur the numerous hardships. God has given us instruction as to how to renew the mind; addictions damage the mind.
- Compromised school performance or attendance: As addictions grow, both cognitive impairment (as described in 8) and diverted attention and priorities interfere with school performance. As school becomes harder, more stressful, and an interference to their primary interest of hanging with their addiction buddies and using, school attendance declines. Since people think they are in school, they often use that cover to skip first period, leave early, or even cut the whole day with a forged excuse or phony call out. For the college student, the decline is much harder to catch and can snowball pretty quickly with longer term academic consequences, steeper financial losses, and more dangerous addiction activities (greater use, stealing, and/or selling drugs to support growing habit and college expenses).
- Loss of interest in previously pleasurable activities: Growing up, your teen enjoyed and gravitated toward various sources of pleasure. Sports, music, crafts, relationships, a school subject, dance, drama, cheering, biking, outdoors and nature, photography, chess, the list is endless. As they mature, they might drop these activities due to a time constraint or developing a new interest. But it should be an evolution forward in their growth. Addictions will cause a loss of interest for no good or real reason, and nothing enjoyable or fruitful will replace it other than pursuing or getting high.
- Increased money interest or spending: Addictions are costly in many respects and finances are the easiest to see a drain on. Do the math – is what they are earning matching how much they are spending and saving? If not, they might be spending on their addiction. Another warning sign is the accelerated interest in working, or working extra, especially when you don’t see them putting it toward anything tangible or a goal consistent with the effort (car, insurance, trip, guitar, etc,). Also, keep your eye on them selling their stuff, especially secretively, or if you have some missing checks or unidentified charges on your credit cards. You might be their banker.
- Uncharacteristic, risky, or dangerous behavior: You know and have observed your teen for more than a decade. You know their temperament, what they like to do, their probable trajectory. When you see behaviors and activity not lining up with who they’ve been, take notice. Some might be while under the influence of substances, some are because of the influence or impaired peers, and some because of the previously mentioned ongoing impairment of their brain. Also, kids getting high are easily bored, and need other highs to get through their mundane day, so illegal or physically risky behavior like shoplifting, fighting, cutting themselves, sneaking out late, need for speed, and other dangerous activities are glaring warning signs of addiction.
- Stupid things to get caught – Don’t ignore the obvious: Lastly, most teens are not very sophisticated or savvy. They will do stupid things because of inexperience, immaturity, and being in over their heads. Also, most unconsciously fear life is getting out of control or have guilt and realize the need for structure and almost beg to get caught. As parents who remember the sweet innocence of their childhood, you don’t see them as capable or ‘evil’ enough to be rebelling against you and doing something so stupid like drinking or drugging. Please don’t overlook finding a bottle in their room, a condom in their drawer, a pipe deep in the closet, a note from a peer, a missing check from your bankbook, and accept some lame excuse from them. I am not saying give them the death penalty, but keep your antennae up and be realistic, not looking the other way because “that’s my child and they would never do that.”
If your child or a loved one is struggling with a life-interfering behavior or substance, the healthcare system is complicated and finding the right residential treatment is confusing. Lighthouse Network brings hope, encouragement, experience, and expertise to help you navigate the system and find the best option for your need and finances. Our Care Guides are available 24/7 at 1-844-Life-Change (1-844-543-3242) and will bring God’s light into your dark situation.