Personality Changes in Teenagers: Normal or Symptoms of Substance Abuse?

Parents and educators, as well as experts and scholars, struggle with identifying what behavior constitutes a normal teenager versus a teenager that is a substance abuser. Teenagers are challenged with being children and becoming adults, which leads to behaviors that often are likened to being substance abuse or mental health issues. Changes during teen years are common but when paired with other factors, allow a parent or educator to understand the differences and risks. All teenagers yearn for privacy, but there is a difference between secretiveness and sneakiness. Behaviors associated with sneakiness include not just locking their bedroom door for instance, but smelling smoke or alcohol odors emitting from the room, as well as anxiety or limited responsiveness associated with the activity. Emotions and emotional reactions change during the teenage years, with teens being unpredictable or elevated in responses given. Outbursts associated with different ranges of emotions should be rare and exceptions. When they happen on a regular basis this is not usual and are often signs of substance abuse or depression. Mood swings and angry outbursts along with extreme behavior changes are concerns.

Parents need to talk with teenagers when the outburst event occurs, which allows the parent to express concern and the teen to know they have someone to talk to about issues. Key elements of the conversations include parents identifying changes noticed and giving the teen a chance to explain. Teenagers in all generational time periods change their appearance, whether it is green hair, tattoos, body piercing or makeup. Extremes occur as expressions of adulthood and independence. Weight loss without effort, appetite changes, reduced hygiene, sleep pattern differences and other extreme physical differences are however concerns. Talk to the teenager to determine what is going on. New friends and experiences are common during the teenage years and expected. Old friends are replaced along with old activities. There is concern when a parent never meets the new friends or when grades drop, social interests change, as well as loss of interest in an activity that the teen was once very passionate about. Peer pressure could be the cause or this could be signs of substance abuse. Asserting independence and forcing boundaries are customary teenager actions. Concerns are necessary when the degree and frequency change dramatically without plausible and honest explanations.

Skipping school, lying about why they missed curfew, unexplained requests for money, legal issues, stealing and disappearing or slipping out away from home are grave concerns. Activities such as these are often early signs of drug and alcohol abuse which require parents to have a critical, serious discussion with their teen to prevent more significant problems from arising. Talking to your teenager is always the first step and should be approached with calmness and respect, as well as not jumping to conclusions. Conversations need to be non-threatening, non-confrontational and delivered with thoughtfulness and open-mindedness. After the conversation, parents must determine if there is a need for professional help to identify the real problem early on and to keep conversations going in the right direction toward resolution. "Research has shown that individuals who experiment with drugs or alcohol at a young age have a higher chance of addiction later in life, as most individuals begin abusing at least one substance before becoming full-blown addicts", according to Donna White, LMHC, CACP. Seeking help and finding the cause is critical and permits early intervention, along with letting your teen know you care about their concerns and life in a loving way.