Substance abusers really don’t look like the people we tend to picture in our mind’s eye. And they certainly don’t look like our kid. A vision I conjure up is one of a disheveled, dirty middle aged individual complete with rotting teeth.

That picture doesn’t fully capture reality. Many addicts are able to function well. Not all publicly spiral downward like:   Britney Spears with her shaved head (some say she shaved it to cover up drug use) and Lindsey Lohan’s with multiple arrests in her resume.

Teenagers  who use and abuse drugs and alcohol often look like a typical  healthy kid: hip, smart, and stylish. They may engage in common teen activities and behavior. They don’t match the image of an addict.

Young people are tempted into use substances for 5 main reasons according to  the  National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA):

  • To fit in and socialize with peers.
  • To alter their mood.
  • To self-medicate undiagnosed or untreated mental health conditions.
  • To perform at higher levels in and out of school.
  • To explore new experiences.

Five of the top 10  drugs of choice for young people are alcohol, marijuana,  nicotine, adderall, and opioids (heroin). Heroin is popular because it is cheap.“Recent surveys of teens and college age young adults reveal that this age group doesn’t believe that occasional use of heroin is dangerous. That should be a large red flag to parents of teens and soon to be or enrolled college students.” (

So what is a parent to do?


Pray God discloses any substance abuse. Pray he gives you eyes to see.


Watch for behavioral changes like:

Lying, lack of eye contact, changes in sleep patterns, slurred or garbled speech (be careful here…teen boys are the professional mumblers!), a change in job or school performance, poor hygiene, apathy, and withdrawal from family and friends, or angry outbursts.

Then ask yourself these 20 questions that may indicate some type of drug use.
Does your tween or teen…

  1. seem to take his/her backpack everywhere?
  2. act highly protective about his backpack (or a girl with a large purse)?
  3. deflect questions about the backpack by getting angry then accusing you of not trusting him?
  4. carry a Sharpie in his backpack (used for graffiti and tagging, part of the drug culture)?
  5. keep (or accumulate) plastic water bottles and duct tape (or are you missing duct tape?) in his backpack? (This is used to make a homemade bong.)
  6. keep thin papers (like Bible pages) in a wallet or purse?
  7. burn holes in clothes or backpacks?
  8. save broken pens or take pens apart?
  9. have ink stains from pens being pulled apart?
  10. keep baggies?
  11. wear strong cologne?
  12. have smelly hair?
  13. have yellow finger tips?
  14. carry Vitamin C juice or emergency packets (provides a second high if on psychedelic drugs)?
  15. have powder on the edges of credit cards or IDs?
  16. have pupils either too small or too large?
  17. use Visine?
  18. have paper clips or lighters with resin in the bottom?
  19. have singed or burned eyebrows or lashes?
  20. use niacin (Vitamin B3) or bleach? (Used to give a drug test a false negative.)

Plus two more for heroin use: wears long sleeves or pants in warm weather (to cover needle marks) and household spoons have melted or been burned around the edges.

(You may find it interesting to know that most of this list was compiled by a mom with her son, a former drug user. For their privacy I am not going to “cite my source”.)

If you believe in your gut your child is a user, don’t wait, get help. The website Project Know has a plethora of additional and  helpful information.

My heart goes out to you if you find yourself and your young person in this situation. This can be overcome with God’s help! It will most likely take some time, but NOTHING is impossible with or for God!

If you discover your child is dabbling in or addicted to substances you might find Messy Journey: How Grace and Truth Offer the Prodigal a Way Home to be a source of help and hope.

With loads of faith, hope and love,

I lift my eyes to the hills-
where does my help come from?
It comes from the LORD,
the maker of heaven and earth.
Psalm 121: 1-2 

© LoriWildenberg. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Lori Wildenberg is a licensed parent and family educator, parent coach, and co-founder of 1Corinthians13 She has written 6 books including Messy Journey: How Grace and Truth Offer the Prodigal a Way Home; The Messy Life of Parenting: Powerful and Practical Ways to Strengthen Family Connections; and her most recent book, Messy Hope: Help Your Child Overcome Anxiety, Depression, or Suicidal Ideation. Contact Lori for your next event or for parent consulting or parent training courses. Lori can also be found mentoring over at the MOMS Together Group on Facebook.

2 Free Chapters!

Subscribe to Lori's  Eternal Moments blog and receive 2 free chapters from her most recent book, The Messy Life of Parenting: Powerful and Practical Ways to Strengthen Family Connections. Thanks for the honor of joining you on your parenting journey.  ~Lori 

Thank you for subscribing!