How would I know if my teen is using drugs and alcohol?

Posted on February 1, 2023 View all news

Intro: The Every Brain Matters community understands how difficult and painful it is to 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 differently, 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. They 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.

Please visit the support and resource page for families and find support meetings here to learn more.

How would I know if my teen was using drugs and alcohol?

Perspective from Clinical Staff:  Usually, if a parent has to ask this question, they have something to worry about. One of the biggest mistakes I see parents make is not trusting their own parent intuition. If a parent thinks or feels something is wrong with their child, it is! We have a culture inundated with drugs, alcohol, and instant gratification behavior. All children will, at the very least, be exposed to this. Pay very close attention to their friends. Do you know their parents? Do their friends come to your home and look you in the eyes? Your teen’s peer group is a HUGE indicator of what direction they are moving in.  

Perspective from Teen: This is tough because if they are anything like me, I was a master at hiding my using from my parents and anyone else. I didn’t want anyone to find out about my drug use. I used drugs for maybe 3-4 years before the first time. I only got caught because I got arrested. After that, I continued to use drugs but put on a different “mask” around my parents. I pretended that I’d “changed,” that my drug use was a one-time thing… and they believed me.

I do think there are some major warning signs and red flags to look for, like adolescents’ attitude and their parents, friends, etc, becoming distant in relationships, and not wanting to get that close to parents. Does your kid bring friends over to hang out at the house?? I never had anyone over (at least when my parents were home) for the sake of them finding out who I was hanging out with… (plus, I didn’t want my friends to rob me). All in all, we are masters of our trade and hiding it, so it can be very difficult to uncover. 

Perspective from a Parent: When my daughter was using drugs, I couldn’t tell. I explained away all the signs that I see so clearly now. “She was not doing well in school, BUT she never liked school. She was explosive and depressed, BUT aren’t most teenagers like that? If it doesn’t get better we’ll get her into counseling. We’ll take away her phone and put her on “lockdown,”, but none of that made any difference. Blah blah blah. What got my attention was her sneaking out at night and putting herself in high-risk situations. I felt like we couldn’t protect her from herself, and at the rate she was going, I didn’t know if she would survive her adolescence.

Perspective from a Parent: I would say if you even suspect your child is using drugs. they probably are. As parents, our drug of choice is usually denial. If your kid starts to isolate from family or longtime friends ask more questions. If your kid comes home and they smell funny, never believe it was someone else smoking pot around them. If you think they are using and they deny it, drug test them. Never be predictable. Always check or call at different times.

Be sure to read the parent story below for hope and inspiration.

I am a survivor of breast cancer and a survivor of my son’s drug addiction. Many people may not lump (no pun intended) these two things into the same category, but considering I am a survivor of both, I think I can. Both turn your life upside down, make you confront the reality of death, and make you realize YOU are not in control of as much as you thought. 

My son was 14 when his behaviors, attitudes, and personality drastically changed. I attributed much of it to the aftermath of my recent divorce and his adolescence. While both may have contributed to the changes, it wasn’t until 6-7 months of searching for answers and living in denial that I was forced to confront the truth. I was losing my son to drugs. It was June of 1998, and I realized that the boy in front of me was truly no longer the same person. My son, who was happy, bright, and smart for the first 14 years of his life, had suddenly turned into a dark, evil, and scary young man. He had a pretty enchanted early life. He attended private schools, we lived in upper-middle-class suburbia, and he had a zest for life. He always had a smile on his face until he started drugs. His drug use went immediately from Marijuana to PCP,  Cocaine, Acid, and any other form of hallucinogenic he could find. He became involved in a gang. My life was hell trying to figure out what to do. 

Each day was torment. I could see him becoming more and more depressed, slipping away slowly. I eventually confirmed his drug use with a urine test at the Fort Bend Council of Drugs & Alcohol. Luckily, they had great counselors who bluntly told me that his drug problem was beyond their ability to help and recommended a hospital. After getting in touch with my insurance and taking him to a psychiatrist, the long journey began. He was suicidal by that time and was in the first hospital for 30 days. He was full of denial and absolute hatred toward me. When he got out, he began using again and was back in the hospital within two days. He tried to take his life. Again, he was hospitalized for another 30 days, and luckily I saw that the gross amount of drugs they were giving him to keep him “controlled” was not the answer. I didn’t know what the answer was, but I remembered one of the psychiatrists talking about teen recovery communities. I called, and my prayers were answered. 

I met with a counselor and immediately felt that this group had something that could help. I didn’t know if they could help my son, but I knew they could help me. I immediately took him out of the hospital (against Psych. Recommendation) and became involved with West U Lifeway (now Cornerstone). The amount of hope that I had when I left that first meeting is indescribable. After feeling hopeless and helpless for so many months, it was truly a miracle to feel some glimmer of hope. 

Lifeway didn’t work for my son immediately. In fact, it took much longer for him. He required a couple of more hospitalizations and eventually went into a residential program at Odyssey House, which he completed and graduated from after eight months. In the meantime, I became extremely involved in the Parent Group. Driving from Sugarland to West U meetings on an average of 2-3 times a week for over 2 years. However, the parent meetings are what kept me strong and gave me the strength to stay focused on the disease of addiction. I worked the program and stayed as committed to it as I have to anything in my life. When my son graduated Odyssey House, we stayed in Cornerstone. He became not only involved but became invested in the group. Quite a difference from the anti-social kid he was before. After 3 years in Cornerstone, we both recently awakened from the group. It was an awesome experience. 

I would never have thought I could be grateful for my son’s drug addiction. But it has brought us closer than I could EVER have envisioned. I have grown in ways I didn’t know were possible. I have witnessed teens and parents whose lives have been transformed because of their involvement in Cornerstone. It is not easy to admit your child is an addict. As I mentioned at our Awakening, denial can be a great thing in life, but certainly not when your child is an addict, and the parent is in denial about it. This has been an amazing three years filled with compromises and sacrifices. However, GOD has led us through, and we have learned many lessons and tools to continue the fight against the everyday disease of addiction. 

My son graduated from High School in May and started his first semester of college courses this week. I am so proud of him for his hard work to stay sober. He will have 3 years of sobriety this September. I am proud of myself for staying involved with this group of wonderful people, for taking the emotional risks required to get invested in this type of program, and I am most thankful that God led us to a program such as Cornerstone. We recently shared our story at the National Youth Leadership Forum in Houston in July. I have attached the feedback from the 18-year-old teens that were attending this forum due to their interest in getting into the medical field. Probably 75-100 kids attended our portion of the forum. One more opportunity to spread the word. I know this is a long story, but this is real life. Triumph prevails.

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 health, mind, or strength state. A healing process.

Shots: A term used in the recovery community called Cornerstone 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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