Signs of a substance use issue in teens during COVID-19

April 30, 2020 | by Justin Wolfe, LCPC, CADC, CRC

The COVID-19 pandemic has created obstacles for adolescents in recovery from substance misuse. Directions to avoid social contact and the closing of schools, extracurricular activities and support group meetings has created an environment where critical resources for recovery are not available.

Shelter-in-place is a drastic shift for adolescents who are used to spending time with friends using. Being confined to their home can further increase a teen’s feelings that she/he can’t function without their substance of choice.

What should parents look for regarding possible substance use issues in adolescents and young adults during quarantine?

Extreme mood swings can be an indicator that use is occurring. Extreme mood swings can come out as anger, irritation, frustration, sadness, increased depression, heightened anxiety and difficulty being by themselves. These feelings can be exasperated by the continued use or withdrawal from substance(s).

Adolescents may feel powerless to their mood, and may lack confidence in their ability to manage their mood without using substances.

Isolation within the home can be another sign that substance use is occurring. Adolescents may spend excessive amounts of time in their bedroom, bathroom and basement, or disappear for extended periods of time with no contact. They are often spending this time identifying how to obtain substances, use substances, and recover from use.

A hallmark symptom of substance use is social and emotional isolation. This may also look like excessive sleeping during the day and avoiding responsibilities within the home. For most teens, being alone with themselves is the last place they want to be. This can lead to impulsive and erratic behaviors to avoid loneliness.

Unexpected/unusual smells in the home are another indicator that substance use is occurring. There is the obvious smell of the cannabis plant, often compared to a skunk. The smell from vape devices can mimic the flavor that is being used, often emitting a sweet smell in the air. It is also important to be aware of the smell of certain drinks, which could be a sign that alcohol is being added.  

To mask these smells, teens may hide devices or pipes in bathrooms where they have access to windows or vents. Also, fans, air fresheners, dryer sheets and sprays may be used to cover up the smell in a room.  Some teens may apply cologne or body spray (despite not leaving the home) to overpower the smells.

Adolescents may also continue to insist on going out to be with friends despite the stay-at-home order and parents not giving permission.

There is a difference between what is to be expected from teens and what is excessive. It is a normal response for adolescents to ask to hang out with their friends and argue that online connections (through social media or FaceTime) are not enough. What is not a normal response is when adolescents smile and nod, claim that they accept the limit, and leave anyway. Or, if they engage in frequent arguments that escalate to shouting matches.

Adolescents may insist that they are social distancing, however their places of congregating are the same places they would go to get away to use substances (e.g., parks, forest preserves, garages, etc.).

What can parents do?

It is critical to maintain structure and connection with recovery resources during this difficult time. The recovery community has established a virtual meeting system to ensure that people in recovery still have access to their support groups.

Online meetings are available for NAMI, SMART Recovery, 12 step (AA, NA, and CA) and online therapy appointments. This can be an excellent time to check out meetings in other parts of the country, or to take the step to immerse oneself in the recovery community.

The stay-at-home order has created a great opportunity to establish new norms within the family system. Identifying a routine for the morning, combined with clearly-established activities that build family connection, along with open and honest communication, can support an adolescent’s recovery.

If you or a member of your family would benefit from working with a therapist, please contact Linden Oaks Behavioral Health at 630-305-5027 for a free behavioral health assessment.

Get the latest coronavirus information from Edward-Elmhurst Health.

Get more information about coronavirus from Healthy Driven Chicago.


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