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A Crash Course In Teen Drug Use

Maybe you saw the title of this article, and you thought, “Well, this is one I don’t need to read.  My kid would never do drugs!”  I’m not here to frighten you, but if you believe your son or daughter will never be tempted to use harmful substances, you’re only setting yourself up for disappointment.  We might like to think it’s the other kids who are using, and not our own.  But according to recent studies, 1 out of every 5 teens is abusing alcohol, illegal, or legal drugs on a regular basis.  Even high school students that aren’t presently using are telling researchers that they get offered prescription narcotics at least twice a day!

In a culture that fosters anxiety and promotes instant relief, drug use is becoming an acceptable method of coping.  Thirty years ago, smoking pot was done in secret by a select few potheads in tie-dye and polyester.  But today, recreational drug use is common in every social strata, including among teens.  And the issue is not going away.  More and more states are feeling increased pressure to legalize drugs like marijuana, stripping parents of their ability to forbid pot use because it’s “illegal.”

In a world that increasingly embraces drug and alcohol use, moms and dads need to understand that this issue will come up in their child’s life.  Parents also need to learn how to identify and discuss with their teens the many social pressures they will face to participate in substance abuse.

What’s Out There?

Off the top of your head, what would you say is the number one drug abused by teenagers today?  Marijuana?  Nicotine?  In reality, more common than both of these are prescription drugs!  Narcotics like Vicodin, Oxycotin, Ativan, Valium, Ambien, Adderall, and even Ritalin are popular medications being used recreationally among today’s adolescents.  There is a huge market for sedatives, painkillers, and anti-depressants, so keep a tight lid on your medicine cabinet, and realize that those bottles on the shelf can be just as damaging as the dealers on the corner.

Next to prescription drugs, Marijuana is the second most common drug abused among teens.  And you can’t turn on the television, listen to music, or read the newspaper without seeing prominent people coming out in support of legalizing this drug.  As pot use becomes more common, teens who’ve never tried it may start to think, “Well, it can’t be too bad if that person is promoting it!”  Parents, it’s not enough anymore to say, “it’s illegal!” We need to learn how to engage in a conversation about the dangers of marijuana in a different way.

Another growing trend in narcotics is designer drugs.  These are fairly common substances that have had their chemical structure altered in order to create a new product.  These drugs are often sold in powder form, including LSD, PCP, Ecstasy, and Ketamine.

This list of drugs and narcotics is not an exhaustive collection by any stretch of the imagination.  But it’s a crash course for the uninformed on what’s being offered, pushed, and abused in our culture.  The more you know about what is out there, the better prepared you will be to handle a teen who is caught in addiction, or tempted to experiment.

What Are the Signs?

When the issue of drugs is brought up, the most common question parents ask me is, “How do I know if my child is using drugs?”  Here are a few telltale signs to keep watch for:

  • Constant use of eye drops.  Smoking pot dries out the sinuses and causes bloodshot eyes.  If your teen is going through bottles of eye drops, it might be a sign that they are using marijuana.
  • Use of Goldenseal vitamins.  Goldenseal is an herb that aids in fighting in the common cold and may help with digestive disorders, as well.  But this herb is commonly believed to mask the presence of illegal drugs in urine.
  • Overuse of air fresheners or incense.  If you get into your teen’s car, or walk into their room, and it’s perfumed with heavy aromas, it may be a sign your child is trying to hide the smell of smoke.
  • Drinking vinegar.  Many people use vinegar for medicinal reasons, but for a teen using drugs, consuming vinegar could be an attempt to mask the smell of drugs on their breath, or hide the presence of narcotics in their urine.
  • Small burns on their fingers.  I’ve had teens tell me, “I burned myself on the hot stove,” when I’ve asked about marks on their hands.  But as parents we need to use discernment.  If you regularly notice small burns on a teen’s forefinger and thumb, that’s a strong indicator of drug use.
  • Rapid weight loss, lack of energy, heavy perspiration, or small bruises on the arms, legs, or feet, are also signs of drug use.
  • Emotional changes.  Does your son seem to be depressed or angry?  Is your daughter avoiding her friends or seem listless all the time?  While these are signs of normal adolescence, don’t be afraid to ask questions.  Wild swings in your child’s emotions could be a sign that they are turning to drugs or alcohol to cope with their problems.

What Do I Do?

If you’ve discovered that your teen has a problem with drugs, or you’ve caught them experimenting with harmful substances, your next question is, “Now what do I do?

First, if you’ve had a history with drugs in your past, don’t be afraid to share that with your son or daughter.  Many parents are extremely hesitant to volunteer that kind of information to their kids, in fear that acknowledging mistakes gives kids license to repeat history.  But that is simply not the case.  Admitting why mom and dad know what they’re talking about actually adds credence and value to their words.  You can relate to your son’s struggles with marijuana.  You can understand your daughter’s temptation to have a drink after school.  Don’t glorify your past, but rather share the mistakes and regrets you have in this particular area.  Your history with drugs can help your teen avoid the same mistakes.

Second, don’t engage in an argument about the morality of using of drugs.  Yes, marijuana is an herb; yes it’s been successfully used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years.  Yes, many people want to legalize it.  And yes, many successful and prominent people in society openly admit to smoking pot.  But these are not the arguments that matter.  What’s important is your son or daughter’s relationship to drugs.  Always bring the discussion back to that personal level.  The fact is, all drugs are addictive and can be destructive.  Explain that you care for your teen, and don’t want them to be held captive to any substance.  Narcotics are designed to dull our senses and trick our minds into feeling a certain way.  Drugs don’t improve our lives in any way.  Their purpose is simply to alter our emotions, and eventually they hold us prisoner.  Many teens have told me that after using drugs for awhile, it got to the point where they needed those crutches to go to school, deal with their family, or relax.  As you talk to your teens about drugs, put yourself in the same scenario.  What would your teen say if you needed a couple of beers for breakfast before going to work?  Or you needed to pop a pill in order to sit down at the dinner table and relax?  Wouldn’t they be concerned for you? 

Lastly, seek help.  Drugs have the capability to sink their claws into our kids so deep that it can be extremely difficult to pry them loose.  If your child is caught in the snare of drugs, enlist some allies to help you free them.  Find sponsors or programs that give them tools to overcome cravings and addictions.  Read books or articles that delve deeper into counseling teenagers dealing with drugs.  You don’t have to face this alone.

If you have a teenager that ventures outside at all, the chances that they will be exposed to drugs and a drug culture are very high.  So take the time to learn about what is out there so you can help your teen avoid making choices they will certainly regret.


Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas.  He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years, has two kids, and four grandkids.  He lives in Longview, Texas, with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.

His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 2,800 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents. You can find out more about Heartlight at HeartlightMinistries.orgYou can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.

Mark is also the host of the radio program Parenting Today’s Teen; heard on over 1,600 radio outlets nationwide. Visit where you’ll find more parenting resources and find a station near you that carries the daily 60-second features or the 30-minute weekend program.  Download the Parenting Today’s Teens App for Apple or Android, it’s a great way to listen on your schedule.

Author: Mark Gregston

Mark Gregston began working with teens more than 40 years ago as a youth minister and Young Life director. He has authored nearly two dozen books, has written hundreds of articles, and is host of the nationally-acclaimed Parenting Today’s Teens podcast and radio broadcast.