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Behavioral Signs of Alcohol or Drug Use in Highly Functional Teens

Highly functional teen with substance use disorder - pretty dark haired girl in black coat close upSomething feels wrong.

Until now, you’ve never suspected your teen son or daughter to be abusing drugs or alcohol because they’ve never given you a reason. They come home when they are supposed to, they excel in school—aren’t teens involved in drugs and alcohol reckless and absent?

Herein lies the standard misconception that people who suffer from substance abuse are unable to keep up with maintaining a functional life. In truth, there are many people struggling with addiction who are able to not only maintain a standard of normalcy, but in some cases, even excel.

What it Means to be a Highly Functional Addict

Someone who is able to still perform daily life sufficiently while regularly using drugs and/or alcohol is labeled as a “highly functional addict.” While often misrepresented in movies and other social media outlets, the state of being a highly functional addict is no less dangerous than being a nonfunctional addict. In fact, being a highly functional addict can mask the severity of a substance abuse problem from the person who is experiencing it.

High-functioning addicts have the ability to present a sober face to the world. Because of this ability, they often see no problem with using in the workplace or may even believe that they work at the optimal level while intoxicated.

A functioning addict can more easily justify drug or alcohol abuse to themselves and others because they will not discern any interference with their daily life. In other words, their ability to function normally becomes an enabler to keep using and resist help.

Many researchers argue that the only difference between a functional and nonfunctional addict is time. In other words, high functioning addiction is a ticking time bomb that inevitably leads down the same rabbit hole of destruction.

Behavioral Signs of Alcohol or Drug Use in Teens

It would be nice to think that the world offers blatant signals of addiction, but unfortunately what may cause one person’s life to derail can be almost unrecognizable in another.

General signs that your teen is using alcohol or drugs according to the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence includes:

  • Skipping class, declining grades, getting in trouble at school
  • Drop in attendance
  • Poor work performance
  • Loss of interest in extracurricular activities, hobbies, sports or exercise
  • Decreased motivation
  • Complaints from co-workers, supervisors, teachers or classmates
  • Missing money, valuables, prescription or prescription drugs, borrowing and stealing money
  • Acting isolated, silent, withdrawn, engaging in secretive or suspicious behaviors
  • Clashes with family values and beliefs
  • Preoccupation with alcohol and drug-related lifestyle in music, clothing and posters
  • Sudden change in relationships, friends, favorite hangouts, and hobbies
  • Frequently getting into trouble (arguments, fights, accidents or illegal activities)

Behavioral Signs of a Highly Functioning Addict

One of the best ways to figure out if your teen is a highly functioning addict is to let go of the common stereotypes about what addiction looks like. In order to see clearly, you have to reconfigure how you think about addiction.

Some signs of a highly functioning teens with substance use disorder include:

  • Sudden increase, interest and time spent on homework
  • An increase in isolated time
  • Increase in mood swings
  • Demanding more privacy, locking doors and avoiding eye contact
  • Using incense, perfume or air freshener to hide smell of smoke or drugs
  • Acting withdrawn or constantly busy
  • Avoiding family activities
  • Change in mood toward you due to overcompensation—being nicer than normal or offering to do favors from guilt

The best indicator that there may be a problem lurking below the surface is to be aware of abnormalities that appear. If you are looking for something specific, you may miss the obvious. Substance abuse is not a cardboard cutout, it is a malleable entity that can manifest in a multitude of ways.

How to Approach a High Functioning Teen

When it comes to parenting, navigating how to talk to your teen about drug or alcohol use can be more difficult with a high-functioning addict. Confronting a teenager about failing grades or sneaking out can be an entryway into talking about substance use. Without anything to couple with suspected drug or alcohol use, a teen can easily talk his or her way out of it on the grounds of there being no proof.

When questioned about suspected drug use, a high-functioning teen may respond by saying: “I’m on the honor roll!” or “I have straight A’s!” This is not only a demand for you to leave them alone, but also it reasserts the belief that they do not have a problem. In this case, it’s best to say that you are coming from a place of love and concern for his or her safety rather than judgment or punishment.

Your Teen’s Brain

It’s critical to remember that the brain of a teenager is not fully developed, particularly the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for impulse and emotion regulation. The prefrontal cortex does not fully develop until between the ages of 21 and 24, which puts your teen at a further disadvantage in being able to see the danger and severity of their situation.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse likens the teenage brain to a car with a fully functional gas pedal (the brain’s reward system) but weak brakes (prefrontal cortex). Put simply, teens are highly motivated to achieve pleasure and relieve pain, but are lacking in their ability to make wise decisions. They tend to think in the now and are led by curiosity, which lends reason to why drug experimentation most often occurs during the teenage years.

The NIAAA further articulates how the teenage brain exacerbates the vicious cycle of addiction stating: “Chronic drug use not only realigns a person’s priorities but also may alter key brain areas necessary for judgment and self-control, further reducing the individual’s ability to control or stop their drug use.”

If you feel that there is something off about your teen, it may be best to get professional help. The NIAAA reports that only 10 percent of teenagers between ages 12 and 17 receive the help they need. In order to reduce the potential for a lifelong problem, don’t be afraid to take immediate action.

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