How do I know if my teen is really addicted to drugs?

Posted on December 1, 2022 View all news

ntro: The Every Brain Matters community understands how difficult and painful it is when you have a child or loved one with destructive behaviors such as using marijuana or any drug. We also know that each family navigates recovery and healing in different ways, applying valuable tools from many types of effective support systems. The information given here is taken from one of these reliable systems.

We are grateful that the Cornerstone Team Counseling community addresses these tough recovery questions and is allowing us to share their insight with you. Since it is beneficial to hear different perspectives, the following answers and opinions are from clinical staff, teens in recovery, and parents and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Every Brain Matters community. We encourage each person to take what they like and make their own decisions that benefit their families.

The Every Brain Matters community also does not recommend specific treatment programs but we are grateful to share the content from the Cornerstone community as a resource.

To learn more, please visit the support and resource page for families and find support meetings here.

To learn more, please visit The Every Brain Matters Support Section or click under the meeting tab to find more information on our support meetings for parents and families.

How do I know if my teen is really addicted to drugs?

Perspective from Clinical Staff: A lot of parents come into the program asking this question. Honestly, I don’t think there is a definite answer to this question. 

What I do know is that there was an incident or continuous destructive behavior that you believed was making your life unmanageable. You saw that behavior destroying your child’s life and you reached a point where you realized it was out of your control and needed help. 

I work with teens who come in “just smoking pot” and teens who are using hard drugs and are fighting for their lives on a daily basis. Regardless, the gifts of recovery are the same.

The love, support, fellowship, and long-term change are the same for a teen who is early in their drug abuse as it is for a teen who went further in their addiction. 

Perspective from Teen: This question comes up a lot for me especially since I got sober when I was 15. And I think that at some point every person in recovery asks themselves “Am I really an addict?”.

For me, recovery is not about figuring out if I’m an addict or not. Recovery is about changing my lifestyle by eliminating ALL the self-destructive behavior from my life so I can show up in my relationships and be a functioning member of society. Drugs and Alcohol prevented me from doing that and, having been in recovery for 7 years, I’ve realized that they no longer serve a place in my life. 

I don’t know if I’ll stay sober for the rest of my life, but what I do know is that recovery gave me the life I have today, and I wouldn’t trade the worst moments in recovery for the best day I had while I was using. 

So, as far as your teen’s involvement in the program, it doesn’t matter if they’re actually addicts. Some kids here have never used drugs in their life, and I’ve seen recovery change their life drastically. The common thread between ALL of us teens and parents is that we all have experienced powerlessness from the unmanageability in our lives due to some type of self-destructive behavior, and when we walked into these rooms we received hope that we could live a life without the chaos. 

Perspective from a Parent: I have learned that I don’t know. Only the addict can decide for him/herself whether they are an addict. However, I can identify behaviors that are signs of a problem/addiction in my child. 

These are the warning signs I saw in my children: 

  • Change in friends
  • Dropping grades and changed attitude toward school
  • Anger and Aggression
  • Disrespect
  • Depression and Isolation
  • Dishonesty
  • Stealing money from me
  • No fear of consequences
  • High-risk behavior
  • Driving under the influence
  • Unmanageability in their life
  • Chaos and fighting in the home
  • Avoiding being at home
  • Legal trouble

I did not need to label my children as addicts to know they were in trouble and needed help. Addict or not, their behavior was unacceptable and my family’s life was unmanageable due to their drug and alcohol use. We all needed help because the disease affects every member of the family, not just the addict/abuser.

Please read the parent story for hope and inspiration.

My Story 

I was raised by two parents who actively used drugs – marijuana and prescription drugs.  My mother suffered from depression, as well as being a hypochondriac. As the oldest of three children,  I found myself playing the role of mother to my two little brothers. My mother would isolate sometimes for weeks at a time, sometimes even longer, “dying” over whatever new “health crisis” she was facing. My brothers and me, we lived in a frightening world where children were compelled to take care of themselves in ways way beyond their ability. I remember, very early in my childhood, feeling like a stranger in a strange land. I often wish someone would rescue me from my troubled home. 

I felt like I needed to escape this dysfunctional family. As a teenager — before I  graduated from high school — I felt like it was imperative that I get out of that household as quickly as possible. My parents wanted to move to a different city when I was sixteen and a  junior in high school. They moved, but I stayed, and I figured out how to work full-time and still graduate from high school. Right after I graduated from high school I got pregnant. Seven months into the pregnancy, my high school sweetheart decided he was too young to be a dad. I  was full of shame. I could not believe someone as smart as me could be in this situation. I decided to make the best of it, and right after I had my oldest son I started college. I made it through two semesters of school and then met my first husband. 

We married shortly after we met and quickly got to business having more children. I had three sons with this man, one of whom was handicapped and passed away at 22 months. The demands of raising four boys under the age of 5 and having a son with severe medical needs were demanding and challenging. However, my relationship with my husband I found taxing and discouraging. He was an alcoholic and drug user. He was also abusive. Both verbally and (on occasion) physically. I had to get my boys out of that home. 

After divorcing my ex-husband, I spent the next year alone. I worked with a therapist who recommended that I attend Al-anon and AA. I wasn’t convinced back then that AA was for me. After all, it had only happened a couple of times that I had been drunk so much that I  blacked out and could not remember when or how I got home. I met my second husband, ironically in a Twelve Step meeting. We were both there to deal with our co-dependency issues.  He was weeks away from being divorced and had five children. It was not six months after his divorce that we got married. He and his wife separated almost a year and a half before we met.  At the time he and I got together, he did not have primary custodial guardianship of his children. His ex-wife had serious mental health issues that would later be diagnosed as  Borderline Personality Disorder. I became convinced, based on the frequently bizarre things happening in his ex-wife’s house, that those children needed to be rescued. In retrospect, a more accurate assessment was that I needed people that needed me, and this was my way of rescuing myself. Don’t get me wrong, those poor children needed help, but the way my husband and I  went about it created more trauma and drama than the serenity that we hoped we could help create. 

My ex-husband was an addict and bipolar, and his ex-wife had BPD (which included acting out with alcohol). Eventually, the volatility of her home led to my husband’s children moving into our house. My boys, when with their dad, were exposed to their father’s alcoholism and drug use. My step-children were exposed to their mother’s. Some even saw several suicide attempts by their mother.

When all our children moved into our home, we thought we finally be able to establish  some “normalcy.” Unfortunately, our household regularly faced smashed windshields, crashed windows, slashed tires, and disgusting graffiti painted on our cars. It was a  nightmare. Their mother started a ploy of psychological warfare designed to try to get the children back. After enduring years of my husband’s ex-wife’s intrusiveness and not finding any support or relief in law enforcement or the court system, my husband and I became angry and hostile towards each other. My husband withdrew from me and the kids by working all the time. I felt alone and resentful for having to deal with the stress of raising eight kids by myself. I started drinking in the evenings to help me relax from the stress. Neither one of us could be there emotionally for our kids. We were both emotionally depleted.  

In 2009 I hit my bottom. Two of our sons were arrested for felony burglary. We were advised by professionals to get one of the son’s mental inpatient treatment (two years later we would find out that he did not have a mental illness, but had been using pot and alcohol since he was 14 years old). I felt shame and guilt, back then all my value was based on how well others around me were doing in their lives. My children were a mess, so it was my fault. I failed as a  parent. Ten days after my son entered treatment, my mother died from an Oxycontin overdose.  Feeling very lost and tired, I too checked myself in PHP treatment at the same facility that my son was going to. That is where I found myself again. I addressed my control issues as well as my drinking.  

I wish I could say that after all that things at home improved but they did not. My relationship with my husband only got more strained. He did not like the new me. He resented my recovery. I tried to talk to him about an easier way of living, and working on our relationship, and that the four teenage boys still living at home were not the ones with the problem; they were reacting to how we were acting and treating each other. He was uninterested and continued to focus on work. 

In 2011, our home life was a mess. My husband and I were living separate lives. I had given up my role of being the authoritarian parent with our four teenage boys. I resented always having to enforce the rules. I thought if I became the permissive parent, my husband would have to be the one to enforce the rules with the boys. Unfortunately, it did not work that way and the boys were spinning more and more out of control. One son was living on the streets with a thirty-year-old woman doing meth. Two of the other boys were skipping school and doing synthetic weed. Our youngest son is autistic, and he was becoming more and more withdrawn, I am sure it was to avoid all the insanity. 

It started to become clear to me that I needed to get help for our sixteen and seventeen-year-old sons for their drug use. One of our sons had a psychotic break before I could put him into rehab. My husband and I admitted him to West Oaks Hospital. My husband was still not convinced that our seventeen-year-old son needed help, at least not until he took him to three different rehabs to be assessed and all three told my husband that our son needed in-patient treatment. We took him to the Odyssey House for 90 days of treatment. My husband and I both had heard about this recovery support group for teens and parents called Cornerstone. Our sixteen-year-old son had stepped down from in-patient treatment to IOP. We were scared and confused as to what to do next so we got in the car with our sixteen-year-old and went to the All-City meet. My husband and I were both shocked that after twelve years we found ourselves back in, essentially, an Al-Anon meeting. 

I felt Cornerstone this type of program model had something more to offer me than an Al-Anon meeting. Since coming out of treatment, I had grown so much as a person, but I felt very isolated and alone. I first fell in love with the parents. I think because, for the first time, I felt unconditional love. I was not sure that Cornerstone was going to be the solution for my family, but I knew it was exactly what  I wanted and needed — someplace where I could be honest and the “real” me. When I went to  AA and Al-anon I still felt restricted on what I could and couldn’t talk about. I felt that few people could really understand what I was struggling with. The parent group in Cornerstone made me feel free to be me. Their hope, strength, and experience allowed me to give myself permission to forgive myself and finally love myself for my warts and all. My husband, in the beginning, did not embrace Cornerstone as I did. Mostly, I believe, because I refused any longer to sit behind closed doors with our family secrets and the miserable shame those secrets kept me bandaged. For the first three months, we drove in separate cars to Climbers meetings because he was so angry with my candor.  

At home, we hardly talked, which was really nothing different than before we found  Cornerstone. I did let my husband know about every event Cornerstone our support group was having, and that I  would be there and hoped he would come. Both boys were out of treatment and actively participating in Cornerstone recovery. I was concerned that our autistic son who now was fourteen and being left home alone too much, and I talked to the counselor about it and he said he would let him come to the satellite. Other kids had siblings involved, so it would not be a problem. 

Within six months things had really changed in our home. My husband and I had somehow gotten close enough to be on the same page and had written “Shots” that applied for all the boys. Everyone living in our home was working in a recovery program, which included going to meetings, having a sponsor, and working the steps. Then without warning, our teens who used left Cornerstone. They both sought refuge with our ex-spouses. I forgot to mention that our four older children did not embrace our new way of living. In fact, they opposed it. They sided with our ex-spouses that we were in a cult. In their opinion, we had overreacted and the boys did not have a drug problem but were just doing what teens do, which is “experimenting”. The boys were not the ones with a problem, we were, they were told. They were encouraging the boys to leave our home and when they did all our children, except for our fourteen-year-old son,  stopped talking to us. 

For me, this was a real test to working recovery. Most people who knew us wondered why we continued to go to Cornerstone meetings. All I can tell you is those meetings, with the love from those parents, are what got me through my pain. During this time, I started hanging out in the afternoon at the Satellite. I fell in love with the kids. My “little girl” who had to grow up too soon,  identified with each one of those kids. She no longer felt alone. The next year we had countless guys’ and girls’ nights and events at our home. I contribute a great deal of my journeys to healing to being given the opportunity to spend time with those teens who were willing to humbly share their stories with me openly and honestly. I could forgive my parents and most importantly forgive myself. For this, I will always be grateful to Cornerstone.  

Glossary of terms:

Addict: An old term used to describe a person with a substance use disorder that is not currently socially accepted anymore.

Al-Anon: A twelve-step organization that provides support and hope for families affected by another person’s marijuana use.

Awakening: A term used after Completion of the 12 steps and the requirements of the Cornerstone community. Like a graduation but it’s viewed as a “spiritual awakening”

Climbers: an interactive educational group for family members to bring issues, questions or concerns, and receive direct feedback from a counselor and other family members. As well as learn tools of recovery to help you and your family. The Every Brain Matters community offers a Climbers meeting every Wednesday.

Destructive Behaviors: Self-destructive behavior is when you do something that’s sure to cause self-harm, whether it’s emotional or physical. Some self-destructive behavior is more obvious, such as: attempting suicide. binge eating. compulsive activities like gambling, using harmful drugs, gaming, or shopping.

IOP (Intensive Outpatient Therapy): treatment programs used to address addictions, depression, eating disorders, or other dependencies that do not require detoxification or round-the-clock supervision.

Mar-Anon Family Groups: A twelve-step organization that provides support and hope for families affected by another person’s marijuana use.

Parent-Driven Recovery: Tools that Work is a must-read for parents of substance-abusing teens. You’ll learn how to maneuver through the chaos to create a harmonious family life. Even if your teen is not ready or willing to change, there is help and hope.

Recovery: A return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength. A healing process.

Shots: A term used in the recovery community called Couerstone Team Counseling. It’s a customized list of rules and consequences each family makes for their homes. To learn more, attend the Every Brain Matters Climbers meeting on Wednesday evenings at 7 pm Central time. A list of our meetings is at this link.

SO: Stands for Significant Others, a term sometimes used when graduating from an IOP (Intensive Outpatient Program) after making amends to our “significant others”, or people we have harmed.

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