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Distinguishing Normal Teen Behavior from Early Addiction Warning Signs

Teen girl sitting on the ground outside of a school with her head in her lap

Novelist William Landay once said, “The interior of a teenager’s mind is an endless war between Stupid and Clever.”

Though those words may sound a bit harsh, parents of teenagers will probably find a kernel of truth in them. The trouble is, it can be difficult to figure out whether teens are just being their “clever” adolescent selves, or whether they are being stupid and consuming drugs or alcohol.

Because teenagers’ brains and bodies are constantly changing, what may first look like deviant behavior may actually be part of the regular teen maturation process. So how can parents tell what is typical and what may be cause for alarm?

Here are some examples of the difference.

1. A change in eating or sleeping habits

Normal: sleeping late, staying up late, eating less healthy foods and at different times of the day

Abnormal: rarely eating, eating only junk food, always feeling tired, failing to sleep at night

2. A change in appearance

Normal: trying new hairstyles or colors, dressing differently and/or “sloppily,” wearing jewelry or piercings, being less hygienic

Abnormal: wearing only sleep clothes around the house, having bloodshot eyes, losing weight without a good explanation, losing teeth, having sores on the face and hands

3. Practicing avoidance

Normal: spending time alone in their room; being nervous or tentative about new things and experiences such as a new school year, taking up driving, or assuming new chores or household duties

Abnormal: being disinterested in activities they used to enjoy, minimizing all interactions with family members, taking substantial measures to avoid any difficult tasks, giving up on trying new things, shirking all previously-accepted responsibilities

4. Mood swings

Normal: having emotional outbursts, questioning parental authority, yelling instead of talking during a heated conversation

Abnormal: experiencing prolonged depression, anger, or euphoria; struggling with anxiety, unexplained crying or screaming, lashing out at strangers or acquaintances, frequent sudden mood changes between happiness and sadness (or vice versa).

5. A change in relationships with family members

Normal: doing fewer recreational activities with family or siblings, spending more time with friends than with family members, not communicating as openly as before, not enjoying extended family gatherings as much as before

Abnormal: frequent yelling or screaming at parents during mundane conversations, threatening family members with harm, physical fighting with siblings or parents

6. Making bad decisions

Normal: acting impulsively without thinking about consequences, neglecting to inform parents of their whereabouts, pushing disciplinary boundaries

Abnormal: physically harming themselves, becoming addicted to their digital devices or video games, skipping school, committing crimes, getting in trouble at school

If you see many of these “abnormal” behaviors from your teens, do not hesitate to confront them about it – but try and do so in a calm and honest way, and listen to what they tell you. Also, you can be proactive in increasing the amount of time your family spends together.

Strengthening your teenagers’ support system can help them cope with life’s struggles more effectively. You could ask a relative, family friend, coach, teacher, or pastor to try and speak with your teens; or you can even find a therapist to help provide guidance. If the troublesome behavior worsens, you could consider taking your teens to see a medical professional or a drug counselor.

Parenting an adolescent can be difficult enough even without the added stressors of substance abuse. If you want to know whether your teenaged child is dabbling with (or addicted to) drugs or alcohol, your odds will increase if you provide a clear set of rules and expectations, maintain open lines of communication, and consistently profess your unconditional love for him or her.

For more information on how to help a teen who is addicted to alcohol or drugs, contact us today to learn about our teen-specific treatment programs.

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