How to Identify Substance Abuse in Teens: A Comprehensive Guide

Learn more about how to identify substance abuse in teens and how to get them the help they need to overcome it in this informative article.

Identifying Substance Abuse in Teens: Overview

Teenagers take more risks and are more susceptible to substance abuse more quickly than adults. This is because a teenager’s brain is vulnerable and still in the process of maturing. According to the CDC, a report showed that 14% of students misused opioids.1

Another report by the NCDAS showed that from 2016 to 2020, there was a 61% rise in substance abuse among eighth-graders.2

substance abuse in teens

Signs and Indicators of Substance Abuse in Teens

There are many different signs of substance use in teens ranging from behavioral to physical. Some of the most common signs of substance abuse in teens include:
  • Getting into legal trouble
  • Lack of focus
  • Hostile and angry
  • Withdrawn or depressed
  • Neglecting school, home, and work responsibilities
  • Taking unnecessary risks when using
  • Less motivated 

Behavioral Signs of Substance Abuse in Teens

Some visible behavioral signs of substance abuse in teens may not influence their health. Some of the behavioral symptoms of substance abuse in teens may include:
  • Insomnia and restlessness
  • Poor balance and coordination
  • Avoiding eye contact with people
  • Poor and strained relationships with friends and family
  • Sudden change in favorite hobbies
  • Poor hygiene
  • Engaging in secretive activities
  • An extreme drop in performance at school or work
  • Constantly chewing mints to cover up breath
  • Regular use of over-the-counter preparations to reduce nasal irritation or eye reddening

Physical Signs of Substance Abuse in Teens

There are also some physical signs of substance abuse in teens that need immediate medical attention.
Some of these physical signs of substance abuse in teens include:
  • Vomiting 
  • Frequent tiredness or fatigue
  • Unusual smells on clothes or breath
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Skin abrasions
  • Sores around the mouth
  • Frequent sickness and perspiration
  • Visible changes in physical appearance
  • Sudden weight loss
  • Nosebleeds
  • Slurred speech

Impact of Substance Abuse on Teenagers

Adolescents tend to make impulsive decisions, like using drugs or alcohol. Substance abuse can impact the health of the adolescent, as it slows the proper growth of the mind and body.
Some other serious impacts of substance abuse on teenagers include:

Academic Performance

Absenteeism from school-related activities and poor grades are some problems related to substance abuse in teens. Teenagers with substance use disorder tend to experience cognitive and behavioral issues. It affects the teen’s academic performance and the learning environment for their classmates.

General Well-Being

Substance abuse also affects the teenager’s well-being and may lead to health-related issues. Some of these conditions may include:
  • Diseases
  • Physical disabilities
  • Possible overdoses
These teens tend to have an increased risk of accidents, suicide, and homicide.

Mental Health Concerns

Teenagers with substance abuse are also at a higher risk of mental health issues like:

  • Depression
  • Conduct problems
  • Personality disorders


Another impact of substance abuse in teens is isolation. Teenagers with substance abuse tend to isolate themselves from social contact and become lonely to hide their addiction. Isolation often leads to an altered brain function.

Contributing Factors to Substance Abuse in Teens

Several factors influence the risk of substance abuse in teens. Some of these factors include:

Peer Influence

A major cause of substance abuse in teens is peer pressure. It may be difficult to abstain when a teenager associates with peers who engage in substance abuse.
For example, a teenager who self-identifies as popular may participate in substance abuse to show off. These teenagers may often see the need to stand out above others.

Social Risk Factors

Social factors also contribute to an increased risk of substance abuse in teens. These include:
  • Social media
  • Bullying
  • Deviant peer relationships
Familial and social influences often occur hand-in-hand. When friends and family show pictures of them abusing substances on social media, the teenagers think it is socially acceptable. Teenagers also see movies and TV shows glorifying substance use and may think it looks fun.

Family History

Teenagers tend to look up to their parents and imitate them. A teen in a home where the parent uses or encourages the use of substances is at a high risk of using. According to research, the addictive process is genetic; a teenager with a family history of substance use is at an increased risk.3

Mental Health Disorders

Teenagers experiencing mental health disorders like ADHD and depression tend to abuse substances. Depression leads to feelings like sadness and anger, making the teen begin using substances as a coping mechanism.

Abusive History

Sexual, emotional, and physical abuse leads to mental health disorders. A teenager who experiences abuse may develop trauma. Evidence shows that a high level of illicit drug usage is also associated with trauma from sexual and physical abuse.

Commonly Abused Substances among Teenagers

The following are some of the commonly abused substances among teenagers:


Alcohol is a widely accessible and popular substance. It is one of the most consumed substances among teenagers.4 Alcohol is dangerous for teens as it interferes with brain development, leading to memory and decision-making problems. It’s a highly addictive substance that leads to SUD.

Effects of Alcohol Abuse

Some of the physical and mental health effects of alcohol abuse include:
  • Slowed breathing
  • Seizures
  • Depression
  • Brain damage
  • Malnutrition
  • Self-harm


Marijuana is the second most abused substance among teenagers. It has a psychoactive chemical that binds to some parts of the brain that trigger the release of dopamine.
Some teens use marijuana because it’s easy to get, and the notion that it’s not harmful. But, there’s a high risk of addiction for teens who use it earlier in life.

Effects of Marijuana Abuse

Some of the effects of marijuana abuse include:
  • Respiratory problems
  • Memory loss
  • Changes in eating and sleeping patterns
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability


Although cocaine use in teens is less common than marijuana, it’s also on the high rise. The lower rates of cocaine use in teenagers result from the limited availability of cocaine compared to alcohol and marijuana.

Effects of Cocaine Abuse

The following are some of the effects of cocaine abuse:
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Weight Loss
  • Stroke
  • Psychosis
  • Paranoia


Adderall is a prescription stimulant for ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) composed of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine. It speeds up the functioning of the body and reduces hyperactivity. Teenagers use Adderall for their easy availability and performance boosters in athletics.

Effects of Adderall Abuse

Some of the effects of Adderall abuse include:
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Strokes
  • Seizures
  • Elevated blood pressure


Hallucinogens are a group of substances that distort reality by triggering hallucinations. They include LSD, Mescaline, and DMT.

Effects of Hallucinogen Abuse

Some of the effects of abusing hallucinogens include:
  • Depression
  • Extreme paranoia
  • Nausea
  • Poor judgment and coordination


Nicotine use is a concern for adolescents. It is one of the most used substances among teens and is easily accessible as it lacks regulation. Teens often obtain this substance because of its low cost.

Effects of Nicotine Abuse

Some of the effects of nicotine abuse include:
  • Heart disease
  • Increased risk of addiction
  • Lung cancer


OxyContin is the addictive brand name for a prescription opioid substance called oxycodone. Teenagers abuse this substance as it is a pain reliever. Some other painkillers abused by adults and teenagers are morphine and tramadol.

Effects of Opioid Abuse

The following are some of the effects of prescription opioid abuse:
  • Poor coordination
  • Confusion 
  • Nausea
  • Chronic constipation
  • Lethargy


Inhalants are a group of substances abused by snorting and sniffing. These substances can create a “high” feeling similar to that of alcohol intoxication. Most teenagers’ first substance abuse is an inhalant due to its availability and easy access.

Effects of Inhalant Abuse

Some of the effects of inhalant abuse include:
  • Confusion
  • Muscle weakness
  • Chronic pain
  • Liver and brain damage

Prevention and Intervention Strategies Used for Addressing Substance Abuse in Teens

There are several prevention and intervention strategies used for addressing substance abuse in teens. These will be detailed below.

Educational Tools

There are school personnel and government agencies that teach adolescents how to lead a drug-free life. Some of these educational tools include universal, indicated, and selective programs. These tools are available at mental health facilities like Ethos Wellness.
Educating teens on the effects of substance abuse has significantly reduced teen substance abuse over the years.

Family Influence

Parents can also educate and explain the consequences of substance abuse to their children. When parents talk to their children while they are young, it creates a solid foundation for substance abuse awareness. It helps to instill a positive influence on the children.

Community-Based Process

This is a strategy that equips the community to provide treatment services for drug use disorders. Some of these activities include:
  • Networking
  • Planning
  • Organizing
This process helps to build healthy communities and encourage healthier lifestyle choices.

Intervention Strategies

Below is an overview of potential intervention strategies for teen substance use.

Psychosocial Interventions

This strategy includes several forms of therapy, like relapse prevention and cognitive behavioral treatment. Psychosocial interventions help in reducing dependence and increasing abstinence from the substance.

Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT)

MAT is an intervention strategy that helps reduce substance abuse in teens. It involves using a combination of:
MAT helps teenagers sustain recovery. It’s available at mental health centers like Ethos Wellness.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)

DBT is a form of therapy that helps to treat relapse. Here, the therapist helps the teenager assess events that led to the relapse. It increases the awareness of the teen about the harmful effects of substance abuse.

Holistic Approach

A holistic approach to treatment improves the well-being of the teenager rather than a symptom. It helps to improve a sense of self and aligns with needs.
Some common holistic approaches include:
  • Meditation
  • Mindfulness
  • Nutritional counseling
Holistic treatment methods are often offered at mental health centers like Ethos Wellness.

Support Groups

Support groups enable patients to grow and share personal experiences in a safe environment. It helps to provide emotional support for the teenager.

Early Detection and Intervention

Early detection and intervention refers to recognizing the warning signs of substance abuse and acting before it worsens. It helps to identify any underlying triggers and issues that enable addiction to grow.
Early intervention helps to develop healthy coping skills and self-worth. It also helps to establish a sense of confidence and reduce the effect of the substance on the teenager.
substance abuse in teens

How Ethos Wellness Can Help

If you or your teenager is showing symptoms of substance abuse, Ethos Wellness is here to help. Ethos Wellness is a mental health healing center that helps to treat teenagers with substance abuse.

Our facility offers treatments that guide you with compassion toward recovery. We have trained professionals available to provide personalized treatment to each client. Our team of qualified personnel will help you with work-life balance and transition after treatment.

Our Mission

At Ethos Wellness, our primary goal is to provide our patients with an integrated system of care to guide our patients over time. Our continuum of care spans across a range of health services at all levels of care.
We use this clinical care to ensure lifelong healing and wellness from addiction and mental health issues.

Treatment Opportunities

Our welcoming facility offers a variety of treatment options, including:
  • Co-ed rehab
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • PTSD therapy
  • Traumatic incident reduction therapy
  • Music therapy
  • Psychoeducational groups
  • Educational support and guidance
Ethos Wellness equips patients with healthy coping skills during treatment to attain long-term recovery. We also offer an aftercare program to help patients stay sober outside the treatment facility.

Treat Your Substance Abuse Today at Ethos Wellness

Ethos Wellness is a mission and value-based mental health facility that treats substance use disorder. We focus on helping our patients recover from co-occurring mental health disorders. The facility also offers educational support and guidance so that teenagers do not fall behind in school.
If you or your loved one is experiencing symptoms of substance use disorder, Ethos Wellness is here to help. Our treatment center helps to treat underlying causes of SUD and improve the patient’s life.

Contact our kind and knowledgeable team today and begin healing.

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Questions About Treatment?

Reach out to our Ethos Wellness team today for direction and guidance in your recovery journey. We’re here to provide you with the whole-person, personalized support you need for the sustainable wellness you deserve.