How Can I Know If My Teen Is Using Drugs?

by Julie Barrier & Roger Barrier

Ask Roger and Julie

I suspect my teenage daughter is using drugs. Her behavior has changed drastically. She is unmotivated, rebellious, and secretive. How can I know for sure, and what can I do about it?


Scared Mom

Dear Scared Mom,

We are so sorry for your worry and disappointment.

Navigating the adolescent years is challenging for any parent; believe me, we know. Roger and I had the opportunity to raise two daughters. You desperately want to keep them safe from danger, and yet, you have to allow them to experience the world in order to learn how to live as healthy adults. It’s like walking a tightrope … with life-and-death results.

Unfortunately, drug use of any kind can be a volatile issue between parent and child. But let me encourage you—God’s Word provides us with practical wisdom for dealing with our children in difficult situations.

Let’s begin with this: the Greek word for witchcraft is “pharmarkaia,” from which we get our English word “drugs.” Note the correlation between drugs and witchcraft. Any sort of mind-altering drug leaves our minds open to control by demonic influence.

So, when some argue that because marijuana is legal in 25 states, it is relatively harmless … nothing could be further from the truth.

Drugs and the Brain

Neurotransmitters are responsible for producing communication between the brain and the body. Opioids trigger the neurotransmitters most responsible for pain reduction and inducing pleasure responses. Dopamine also takes part; when its production is stimulated, it floods the brain and can create a euphoric state. Prescription and street-produced opiates mimic the effects that stimulate these pleasure sensations. Unfortunately, as a person takes more and more artificial opiates, his or her tolerance increases. The brain requires more and more of that substance to achieve the same effects.

Drugs and the Lungs

Opiates depress the central nervous system. This effect can cripple the respiratory system. Whether ingested or injected, opiates can slow breathing and ultimately lead to respiratory distress or loss of consciousness. Over time, opiates can cause severe long-term effects on the lungs, leading to pneumonia, tissue damage, and even respiratory failure.

Drugs and the Liver

In general, alcohol and substance abuse have major risk factors in regard to the overall health of the liver. Most opiates contain acetaminophen, which is very difficult for the liver to metabolize. Often, addicts will combine alcohol or other substances with opiates in order to increase or prolong the “high,” which further reduces the ability of the liver to process these compounds and can cause long-term damage.

Drugs and the Digestive System

Narcotic Bowel Syndrome describes the dysfunction of natural bowel function due to an influx of opiates or other narcotics. Common side effects include nausea, bloating, constipation, abdominal pain, and sometimes gastrointestinal bleeding. This disorder flares up once the narcotic effect wears off, often leading to intense pain that prompts the user to seek relief through more drugs.

Drugs and the Heart

Opiates are naturally depressants, and the effect on the heart is no exception. As the opiate reduces the function of the central nervous system and the cardiovascular system, the heart’s function is also slowed. This effect can lead to dangerously low heart rates, also called “bradycardia,” low blood pressure, vasodilation, and edema. In an overdose, the heart can stop.

So how do you know if your child is using?

Here are a few signs that we’ve learned from parents, counselors, and medical personnel over the years:

1. Your teen has become increasingly defiant, disrespectful, dishonest, disobedient, and often destructive.

2. He or she displays behavior that is a marked change from what has been normal, like sleeping little or too much, forgetfulness, lack of motivation, aggression, depression, anxiety, grades slipping, hating what they once loved or loving what they once hated, always wanting to be with friends or away from home, or avoiding friends altogether and spending too much time alone.

3. You observe rebellion against Christian belief systems or rules of the home. Teens often show this in passive aggressive behavior or open defiance.

4. He or she threatens suicide, begins self-mutilation/cutting, takes excessive risks, or gets involved in sexual promiscuity—overall, they show a loss of a conscience or moral compass.

5. Your teen thinks he or she is the center of your family and shows blatant disregard for the feelings of other family members and refuses to do anything family related.

6. You cannot keep your teen away from peers who are obviously leading a lifestyle counter to your beliefs; your teen is buying into their destructive behavior and attitudes.

7. Your teen starts having money and you are unaware of its source, or you begin to notice money missing.

8. Your child’s grades fall right off the table, with no other obvious cause.

Please, don’t tell yourself, “My kid would never do such a thing!” Because kids that struggle with drugs come from every home situations, socioeconomic strata, and background.

You are not powerless! God has provided positive ways to prevent or help heal your child from destructive behaviors like drug abuse.

Above all, pray earnestly for your child. God can do miraculous things to change his or her heart!

Now, here are a few tips to help our kids to make good decisions in life. Remember, you are your child’s best teacher!

  1. Make sure your kids have plenty of practice making decisions in your home. This is their safe place to learn good judgment and godly wisdom.

He wrote them to teach his people how to live—how to act in every circumstance, for he wanted them to be understanding, just, and fair in everything they did. “I want to make the simpleminded wise!” he said. “I want to warn young men about some problems they will face.” Proverbs 1:2-4 NLT

  • Encourage your child to be involved with godly friends and to be involved in a Bible-believing church.

And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near. Hebrews 10:25 ESV

  • Show respect for your kids’ opinion on everyday family issues and give them the opportunity to become discerning and mature.

Let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance. (Proverbs 1:5 NLT)

  • Make sure you have POSITIVE expectations for your kids. Help them to see how much you love and value them.

Children are a gift from God; they are his reward. Psalm 127:3 NLT

  • Identify and meet the needs of your teen.

Therefore encourage and comfort one another and build up one another, just as you are doing. 1 Thessalonians 5:11 AMP

  • Recognize that they often become angry and rebellious because they are hurting. Comfort them!

Rejoice with those who rejoice [sharing others’ joy], and weep with those who weep [sharing others’ grief]. Romans 12:15 AMP

One final note: self-medication can be a cry for help from a child who needs psychiatric attention. A good doctor can identify symptoms like bipolar disorder and give help by starting your teen on the right medicines. Counseling is also a great way to deal with chemical imbalance. Don’t minimize the possibility that these issues are present.

Roger and I were fortunate that our girls never used drugs, but we came home from a conference once and our youngest had dyed her hair bright orange in the church bathroom. She also wanted piercings, so she poked a safety pin in her belly button to be accepted by the “cool kids.” Unfortunately, she contracted a massive infection, and we raced to the doctor to treat her “secret infection.”

Twenty years later, we have learned of her “adventures” in rebellious behavior during her youth. She is a beautiful, well-adjusted woman now, but I can’t believe how we missed her cries for help and attention.

May God be with you as you navigate these teenage years! He loves your daughter more than you ever could.


Julie and Roger

Julie and Roger

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