Parents often find themselves in a quandary trying to figure out how to help the adolescent whose behavior, disposition, and mood has changed for the worst. The exact nature of the problem may be eluding them. They use a trial and error problem solving method where they end up trying anything and everything to solve the problem. They try assertive discipline, enrolling their child in extracurricular activities to improve self-confidence or self-esteem, tutors, antidepressants, etc. without really knowing what they are dealing with.

They are often operating under faulty suppositions. Although their child's personality changes can seemingly come out of nowhere, the parent may have identified a link to changes in the family, lifestyle, or other circumstances. Parents tend to point to a geographic move, a divorce, death of a grandparent (or any other significant person), or other major life changes and believe that these changes are the source of the problem.

Much of the time, the personality and behavioral changes they see in their adolescent, are related to substance abuse. And the substance abuse can be linked to those life changes. If there is substance abuse/dependence issue, those life changes may have propelled the child into escalating use of the chemical, which could bring about escalating negative consequences of that drug use.

Most parents do not want to believe that their child has an addiction or drug problem. It is much more emotionally comfortable to believe that their child is having a hard time adjusting to changes in the family or to developmental stage difficulties. Parents are often so invested in "the problem" not being a "drug problem" that they ignore or explain away the first few wake-up calls that they are dealing with addiction.

Classic examples of an alcohol or drug problem that parents often miss include (but are not inclusive):

1) finding drugs in the child's room and believing that the drugs belong to some other child and that your son/daughter is holding them for "Johnny".
2) writing off some anonymous phone call or letter that your child is using, to jealousy, or some other malevolent motivation,
3) explaining your adolescent's change in group of friends as his/her low self-esteem or need to take care of others,
4) explaining drugged or drunken behavior as a "one time only" event.

Other common changes in your adolescent that may signal an alcohol or other drug problem:

-General decline at school, (i.e., drop in grades, being late, skipping school)
-Defiant, rebellious behavior at home, school, and in community (lack of respect for authority figures).
-Depression, sleeping difficulties, sadness, apathy, loss of motivation, loss of interests.
-Irritability, agitation, acting out of anger, hostility, negative attitude. -Change of peer group (from the kids you have known to kids that they don't bring home).
-Changes in appearance, (i.e. change in personal style; poor hygiene; weight loss/gain).
-Withdrawal from, and avoidance of, friends and family.
-Quickly changing emotions and moods.
-Secrecy, deception/dishonesty, routine lying.

Parents often look at this list and ask, "Isn't this rebellious stuff normal for adolescence?" A certain amount of rebellious, moodiness, and secretive behavior may be "normal". The intensity of personality changes often signal something more serious than normal adolescence.

Adolescents are more vulnerable to moving from casual/experimental use of chemicals into addiction because of their still developing brains and emotional immaturity. Other adolescents are even more vulnerable to addiction than others because of genetic predisposition, personality characteristic (low self-esteem, people pleasing, anxiety, (especially social anxiety or shyness), lack of social skills, tendency to become bored easily, rebellious/antisocial attitudes), drug using peers, and certain family dynamics.

When parents discover that there is a substance abuse problem amidst other life changes and circumstances, it is tempting to try to focus on those other circumstances, believing that the drinking/using problem will be resolved when the other issues are fixed. This is typically not the case.

Unresolved emotional, mental health, and relationship issues can be worked on and resolved once the drinking/using stops, but working on the other issues will not typically stop the drinking/using. Unless the chemical use is stopped, the symptoms and negative consequences of drinking/using will continue to occur. The symptoms and negative consequences of substance abuse are those listed above (i.e. drop in grades, secrecy, depression, etc.)

Most addiction treatment modalities target the emotional and psychological issues present in a patient with addiction. Often when adolescents get clean and sober, many of the presenting emotional/psychological issues are resolved by removing the chemical. Many addicts have been misdiagnosed with physical and mental illnesses that they simply do not have. Once the using stops, so do many of the other symptoms. Addiction can mimic all kinds of other illnesses, including bipolar, schizophrenia, ADD, borderline personality, depression, anxiety disorders and others.

Sometimes, however, other illnesses are co-occurring with substance abuse/addiction and will persist well into sobriety, and are best treated concurrently with addiction issues. Nevertheless, it is very difficult to know whether there is another underlying disorder when its symptoms are the same ones as addiction itself.

Author's Bio: 

If someone that you love needs help for addiction, help is available. My website, a work in progress has numerous articles on Addiction and Recovery, Marriage, Sexual Addiction, Mental Health, and Skill Development. Other informational resources on my website include a Recommended Readings page, a Links page, an Ask Peggy column, Surveys, and e-books. To fill out a survey and let me know what kinds of information that you would like to have or to purchase my e-books, go to To sign up for a newsletter that will alert you to additional informational opportunities on this topics or others, go to

The information in this article (and on my website) is for educational/information purposes only, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, examination, diagnosis or treatment.

Dr. Peggy L. Ferguson, Ph.D., LADC, LMFT, Marriage/Family Therapist, Alcohol/Drug Counselor, Writer, Trainer, Consultant.