“It’s not the addict I hope will be grateful for my love. It’s my child. My child is the one who needs to see my strength. My devotion. My resolve. My child needs me to face down what has become his worst enemy. Not help it. My child is the one I want to see live beyond tomorrow.”

~ Sandy Swenson

It can be difficult to know whether or not your son or daughter is abusing drugs or alcohol – particularly when college and work takes them out of your daily life. If you are concerned that your child may be suffering from addiction or alcoholism, consider the three major indicators discussed here as a warning sign – and learn what you can do about it.

There are dozens of indicators when an individual is abusing either drugs or alcohol (or both). From heavy circles under the eyes due to a lack of sleep, to becoming socially withdrawn or secretive, nearly everyone who becomes addicted to drugs or alcohol gives off at least several signs of this addiction. However, all of these signs can be boiled down to three major areas: physical changes, emotional changes, and social changes. Each of these areas is looked at in more detail below, along with the specific signs that your son or daughter is abusing drugs or alcohol.

Sign #1: A Physical Change in Your Child

Sign #1: A Physical Change in Your Child

One of the major indicators of both drug addiction and alcoholism is a physical change in the person that is struggling. Dependency on drugs and alcohol is all but certain to change a person’s physical appearance – that is, a less healthy look in their face and body, and a deterioration in personal hygiene. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, some of the major physical and health signs of substance abuse include:

  • Eyes that are bloodshot or pupils that are smaller or larger than normal
  • Frequent nosebleeds (a sign of meth or cocaine use)
  • Altered appetite and sleep patterns – also extreme weight loss or gain
  • Seizures (with no prior history of epilepsy)
  • Deterioration in physical appearance and personal grooming
  • Impaired coordination, with injuries or bruises of unknown origin
  • Unusually bad breath or body odor
  • Tremors, shakes, incoherent speech, and impaired coordination

Of course, some signs of substance abuse and addiction vary depending on the type of substance being used. Encountering alcohol on the breath or hangover symptoms on a daily basis signifies alcohol dependency. Inhalants usually result in red eyes, chemical breath, or stains on the face. Stimulant addiction is associated with nosebleeds or a constant runny nose, along with a lack of sleep. Addiction to heroin is usually associated with very small pupils, as described above, and a drowsy appearance.

“Parents tend to underestimate the risks or seriousness of drug use. The symptoms [of addiction] suggest a problem that may already have become serious and should be evaluated to determine the underlying cause – which could be a substance abuse problem or another mental health or medical disorder. Parents who are unsure whether their child is abusing drugs can enlist the help of a primary care physician or drug abuse treatment provider.”

~ National Institute on Drug Abuse

Though the physical indicators outlined above are not the only signs your son or daughter is abusing drugs or alcohol, they are often the most readily apparent. If you encounter several of these symptoms over a short period of time, it may be time to ask your child about their drug or alcohol use. Just asking the question can be the first step towards getting them the professional help that they need.

Sign #2: An Emotional Change in Your Child

Sign #2: An Emotional Change in Your Child

In addition to the physical effects, drug and alcohol dependency often cause a large shift in the emotions and psychology of the addict or alcoholic. In some extreme cases parents are unable to even recognize their child as the same person, due to their mood swings and changes in personality. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence highlights some of the main psychological warning signs of alcohol or drug abuse:

  • Unexplained and even confusing change in personality and attitude
  • Sudden, extreme mood swings, such as irritability, angry outbursts, or even laughing at nothing
  • Sustained periods of hyperactivity or agitation
  • A marked lack of motivation and an inability to focus
  • General lethargy to daily tasks
  • Withdrawn behavior
  • Anxiety or paranoia with no apparent cause
  • Repeated dishonesty
  • A loss of interest in the family

The symptoms outlined above make it clear that substance abuse and addiction result in neurological and emotional effects as much as physical ones.

“I understand addiction now. I never did before, you know. How could a man (or a woman) do something so self-destructive, knowing that they’re hurting not only themselves, but the people they love? It seemed that it would be so incredibly easy for them to just not take that next drink. Just stop. It’s so simple, really. But as so often happens with me, my arrogance kept me from seeing the truth of the matter.”

~Marie Sexton

If you see any of these emotional and personality changes in your child, particularly in conjunction with the physical symptoms already discussed, it is likely because your son or daughter is abusing drugs or alcohol. Both depression and aggression are signs of addiction, and one of the best ways to deal with this emotional fallout is to address the underlying issue: addiction itself. Just as addiction is out of their control, much of this emotional backlash is as well.

Sign #3: A Social Change in Your Child

Sign #3: A Social Change in Your Child

While addicts tend to be secretive about their drug or alcohol abuse, addiction is difficult to hide completely. If your son or daughter is abusing drugs or alcohol, you will likely see a change in their behavior along with the physical and emotional changes described above.

Some of the behavioral signs of alcohol or drug abuse, as outlined by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, include:

  • Skipping class, lower grades, or getting in trouble at university
  • A marked loss of interest in social activities, hobbies, exercise, or sports
  • Decreased motivation to go out
  • Complaints of unusual behavior from friends, classmates, and co-workers
  • Clashes with family values and beliefs
  • A sudden change in friendships, relationships, and chosen hobbies
  • Isolated, withdrawn, or sullen behavior
  • Secretive and suspicious behavior around friends and family
  • Sudden requests for money from family members (or even stealing)
  • Obsession with drug or alcohol paraphernalia
  • Drinking increasing amounts of alcohol in a social setting

Addiction hits the hardest when it begins to affect relationships, as it is sure to if the drug or alcohol abuse goes unchecked. If you see these signs and find that your son or daughter is abusing drugs or alcohol, do not take it personally. They will need all of the social support and love that they can get. But now that you have identified the problem, what can you do about? Perhaps more importantly, what can’tyou do about it? We are here to help answer those questions.

What to Do if Your Child is Abusing Drugs or Alcohol

If you are not sure whether or not your child is actually addicted to drugs or alcohol, given the signs discussed above, you can take this quiz to help determine if your family member is addicted. Be sure to understand both the nature of addiction and the major physical, emotional, and social effects it can have on your child before you take a next step. Part of this is accepting that addiction is a mental disorder, and it is neither your fault nor your child’s fault. That said, we believe that the recovery process involves the entire family support system, and can help both you and your child receive the needed care.

“It takes a lot of courage to seek help for a child with a possible drug problem because there is a lot of hard work ahead for both of you, and it interrupts academic, personal, and possibly athletic milestones. However, treatment works, although it may take time and patience.”

~ National Institute on Drug Abuse

If you suspect that your college-aged or young adult child may be addicted to drugs or be suffering from alcoholism, one of the best things you can do is to let them know that you care and that you are there for them. Before doing so, take some time to learn about the difference between helping and enabling. Understanding the difference is not always something that comes naturally to people, and taking time to learn about an appropriate response to addiction and alcoholism will make any steps you take much more healthy for both yourself and your child.