A Parents Guide to Drug and Alcohol Use and Abuse

A Parents Guide to Drug and Alcohol Use and Abuse

Many, perhaps most, teenagers experiment with drugs and alcohol. This doesn’t mean they will become addicts, but the experimental behavior that occurs at adolescence can quickly bring problems, even deadly ones, to a family. The Franklin family lost their son, the school’s quarterback and a leader of their church’s youth group, in a drunk driving incident the first time he tried driving after a few beers. Another set of parents is still dealing with fallout from their daughter Jasmine’s drug use. Jasmine says it started because everyone else at school was trying marijuana. She smoked a joint because of peer pressure but liked it so much she couldn’t stop and ended up in rehab.

No matter what your family is like, drugs and alcohol are at your teen’s doorstep. Ephesians 5:18 cautions us, “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit.” In this brief section, I can’t address all the issues, but I’ll tackle a few. To start with, parents must be aware of what are called gateway drugs—substances that often lead to more dangerous drug use. The gateway to abuse is wide and attractive with this generation of teens. There are at least four components:

Beer and wine. This is where most kids begin. Typically, they find the beer and wine in their homes or their friends’ homes. The average first drink of alcohol occurs at about age twelve.

Exposure to alcohol and frequency of consumption increases as teens get older. In 2015, the Monitoring the Future Survey reported that 26 percent of eighth graders had tried alcohol in the past year and 10 percent drank in the month preceding the survey. If teens continue drinking alcohol, they will likely move through the gateway and experiment with the next drug.

Nicotine. Nicotine is one of the stronger addictive drugs known to humankind. In the United States, the prevalence of teen smoking has declined substantially over the past decade. In 2015, just 13 percent of eighth graders had smoked a cigarette, and 3.6 percent had smoked in the past month. This is good news for parents. Still, the emergence of the e-cigarette gives cause for concern because it is poised to become a gateway drug in its own right. A CDC report finds that e-cigarette use among high school students in the past four years has increased tenfold, from 1.5 percent in 2011 to 16 percent in 2015.3 Cigarette smokers are more likely to move on and try marijuana than non-smokers. If a teen doesn’t try cigarettes, there is only a twenty-percent chance that they will ever smoke marijuana.

Marijuana and harder alcohol. Due to changes in growing techniques, marijuana is more potent today than in previous generations. Research has found that the psychoactive chemical (THC) found in marijuana is at least three times stronger than in the 1980s.4 Though infrequently reported, pot can also be laced with other drugs. Marijuana is known to produce “a-motivational” syndrome, which means the brain becomes lazy and lethargic. And similar to alcohol, marijuana affects a user’s ability to make good decisions. Marijuana use can have lasting effects on the developing brain, so the consequences for teens are especially negative.

Harder alcohol (stronger than beer and wine) is also considered a gateway drug because alcohol is a mood- and mind-altering substance. Many people don’t understand that there is a biological predisposition toward alcoholism. If alcoholism is in your family system, there is a greater chance that you (and your teens) may become alcoholics. Because alcoholism is prevalent in my family system, I choose not to drink and have made sure my children understand their increased risk of alcoholism too. Marijuana and harder alcohol use makes it easier for teens to move to the next gateway.

Harder Drugs. Kids today are experimenting with all types of even more dangerous drugs. The following is not meant to be all-inclusive, but parents must be aware of the different drugs teens are using:

  • Club drugs are popular at teen parties. Club drugs tend to be stimulants and even psychedelic drugs. Examples include ecstasy, Rohypnol, and ketamine.
  • Hallucinogens distort a person’s perception of reality. Examples include PCP, LSD, and mescaline. Use of synthetic cannabinoids (misleadingly called “synthetic marijuana” at times) has increased among teens in recent years. These psychoactive chemicals are made in laboratories and then sprayed on plant material so that they may be smoked. But they are not “natural.” Many synthetics are extremely potent and their mind-altering affects can be highly unpredictable and even life-threatening.
  • Inhalants are substances that people often don’t consider drugs at first glance. However, they are considered addictive, and kids use them to get high. Spray paint, hair spray, and even vegetable oil sprays are some inhalants used today.
  • Prescription drugs, of course, are found in many homes’ medicine cabinets. Today, kids will try “pharming” at parties by experimenting with someone else’s prescription drugs, including Ritalin, OxyContin, and Vicodin.
  • Cocaine, meth, and heroin are three of the most popular drugs with teens when they move on to the stronger stuff. I am currently hearing about a general resurgence of heroin use, addiction, overdoses, and deaths across North America, and these reports often involve teens. If your teen is experimenting with any of these dangerous drugs, do everything in your power to get him the help he needs before it is too late.


With teenagers, it’s not always easy to tell if they are in a crisis or just having a bad day. If you suspect your teenager is having trouble with drugs or alcohol, it’s crucial that you take a close look to help determine the causes of your suspicions. What you find may reveal that your teenager is simply riding on the roller coaster of adolescence. On the other hand, you may find that your son or daughter needs significant help.


The following symptoms could point to problems other than drug abuse. But together, they indicate problems needing professional treatment. If every symptom describes your teen, please take immediate action. If only a few symptoms are present, they could reflect common aspects of the teenage years. I suggest that you at least discuss your concerns with your child.

  • Secrecy
  • Changes in friends
  • Increased isolation
  • Change in interests or activities
  • Drop in grades
  • Getting fired from an after-school job
  • Changes in behavior around the home
  • Staying out all night
  • Possession of a bottle of eye drops (to counter bloodshot eyes)
  • Sudden change in diet that includes sweets and junk food (many drugs give users cravings or “the munchies”)


The following symptoms indicate chemical abuse. If several of these symptoms are present, you should take action immediately before the problem develops into addiction or becomes life- threatening.

  • Depression
  • Extreme withdrawal from the family
  • Increased, unexplained absenteeism from school
  • Change from active involvement to little or no involvement in church activities
  • Increase in mysterious phone calls or text messages that produce a frantic reaction
  • Starting smoking
  • Money problems
  • Extreme weight loss or gain
  • Appearance of new friends, older than your teen
  • Expulsion from school
  • Rebellious and argumentative behavior
  • Listening to music with pro-drug lyrics
  • Acting disconnected or spacey
  • Attempting to change the subject or skirt the issue when asked about drug or alcohol use
  • Changing the word party from a noun to a verb
  • Discussing times in the future when she will be allowed to drink legally
  • Long periods spent in the bathroom
  • Burnt holes in clothes or furniture


When the following signs are noticeable, you should have no question in your mind that your child is abusing drugs or alcohol. These are signals that the problem has not just started but has existed for some time. Intervention is necessary if the following symptoms are present.

  • Drug paraphernalia found in the bedroom
  • Possession of large amounts of drugs
  • Possession of large amounts of money (usually indicates selling drugs in addition to using)
  • Needle marks on the arms, or wearing clothing that prevents you from seeing the arms
  • Valuables disappearing from the house
  • Arrests due to alcohol- or drug-related incidents
  • Repeatedly bloodshot eyes
  • Uncontrollable bursts of laughter for no apparent reason
  • A runny or itchy nose that is not attributable to allergies or a cold (a red nose would also be an indicator)
  • Dilated or pinpoint pupils
  • Puffy or droopy eyelids that partially hang over the iris
  • Unmistakable behaviors associated with being under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • Mention of suicide or an attempt at suicide
  • Disappearance or dilution of bottles in the liquor cabinet
  • Time spent with people you know use drugs or alcohol
  • Medicines disappearing from the medicine cabinet
  • Defending peers’ rights to use drugs or alcohol


Much can be written that space does not allow for me to include here in this section. Many good resources for parents can be found online. One I recommend is the website for the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids (www.drugfree.org).

Here are a few general suggestions as you seek to help to keep your kids avoid drug and alcohol use and abuse.

  • Move beyond the “not my kid” syndrome. It’s easy to convince yourself that your kids won’t get involved in drug and alcohol experimentation. And you’d be wrong. Really good kids use drugs and alcohol for the first time every day. All kids think about trying at-risk behaviors and are susceptible to temptations and peer pressure. It can happen to your kids.
  • Discuss drugs and alcohol with your teens. Talk about the dangers and potential consequences of drug and alcohol use with your kids. You may think these are not a problem for your teenager, and they may not be, but the safest course of action to protect him is to use an ounce of prevention by making drug and alcohol use a topic of discussion with him.
  • Be a good role model for drug and alcohol use. If you are concerned about the example you are setting for your teenager regarding drugs and alcohol, it’s likely that you need to make some changes in your own life. Don’t forget, you set the pace for your kids.
  • Safeguard prescription drugs in your home. If you keep your family’s prescription drugs under lock and key, your teen will be safer and won’t be as tempted to abuse or distribute them to others. Sure, it’s more of a pain for you as a parent to play the role of family pharmacist, but get over it, for your teen’s sake.


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Jim Burns

Jim Burns is the president of HomeWord. He speaks to thousands of people around the world each year. He has close to 2 million resources in print in 20 languages. He primarily writes and speaks on the values of HomeWord, which are: Strong Marriages, Confident Parents, Empowered Kids, and Healthy Leaders. Some of his most popular books are: Confident Parenting, The Purity Code, Creating an Intimate Marriage, Closer, and Doing Life with Your Adult Children. Jim and his wife, Cathy, live in Southern California and have three grown daughters, Christy, Rebecca, and Heidi; three sons-in-law, Steve and Matt, and Andy; and three grandchildren, James, Charlotte and Huxley.

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