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How to Identify Teen Substance Abuse: A Guide to Help Struggling Teens

A teenage girl sits on a couch with her head in her hands.

Students typically spend more time each school week in the company of teachers than they do parents. It is often teachers who first spot signs of teen substance abuse.

Unfortunately, it’s a problem present in every school. About 4.2 million adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 years use illicit drugs, according to teen substance abuse statistics from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. That translates into about one in every six teens between the ages of 12 and 17 years.

Clearly, teachers must stay watchful for signs of substance abuse to help connect students with the help they need as early as possible. Fresno Pacific University offers a class designed to help teachers identify signs of teen substance abuse.

Teenage Addiction: What Educators Need to Know is taught by clinical psychologist Allan Hedberg, Ph.D. Hedberg said every teacher has kids in their classrooms who are either addicted or are becoming addicted.

“Who are they? How to relate to them? It is a major social, health, spiritual and personal problem today,” he said, adding that providing help is imperative for a student’s future.

”Addiction prevents learning. Addiction prevents social relationships. Addiction prevents positive family relationships. Addiction prevents future success,” he said.

Hedberg’s course allows educators to improve their skills in relating to addicted teens, identifying teenage addiction and confronting it in the classroom.

Signs of Teen Substance Abuse

Substance abuse is a progressive disease. This presents challenges because early signs might prove difficult to detect. Also, it’s normal for racing hormones to cause teens to experience mood swings. It’s important to know the difference between typical teenage behavior and markers of addiction.

Experts have determined that certain signs are more indicative of addiction than others. Understanding them can help teachers better guide students toward the help they need. The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation provides a list of warning signs that include:

  • No longer showing interest in activities they once enjoyed
  • Changes in relationships, such as dropping old friends for new ones
  • Becoming despondent, aggressive or angry
  • Sleeping for longer periods of time
  • Breaking rules
  • Physical changes that can include sudden weight loss, frequent nosebleeds, bloody or watery eyes, or shakes and tremors

This can translate into disengagement from coursework, poor attendance and health and hygiene issues at school. Many students in such situations can benefit from contacting the National Helpline offered through the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

“Dos and Don’ts” for Teachers

The Fresno Pacific course also explores important “do and don’t” issues for teachers regarding identifying and dealing with teen substance abuse.


  • Learn the classic signs of substance abuse and addiction within teens
  • Share what changes you’ve seen in your student in a non-judgmental and constructive way
  • Listen to your student without judgment and with an open mind
  • Involve related school staff, such as school counselors and nurses, to best support your student
  • Encourage constructive and beneficial extracurricular activities outside the classroom
  • Integrate substance abuse prevention skills in everyday teaching to further prevent other students from falling into addiction


  • Cross any student/teacher boundaries, no matter how well-meaning
  • Break down or give in to emotions
  • Deliver non-constructive punishment
  • Diagnose them (leave that to professionals)

The Fresno Pacific Teen Addiction Course

Fresno Pacific’s teen addiction course gives teachers an overview of common addictions that keep middle schoolers and high schoolers from achieving academic success. Educators who complete the course have the knowledge and skills to deal with the difficult situations that often arise around addiction in youth.

Teachers completing this course will have taken the first step toward supporting students struggling with substance abuse or other issues, including over-eating and stealing.

Outcomes from the course include:

  • Identifying addiction behaviors in today’s youth
  • Describing the physiology of addiction
  • Differentiating effective versus ineffective methods of intervention
  • Identifying key factors that contribute to teen addiction
  • Determining appropriate actions teachers can employ to support students who seek help
  • Identifying strategies to better understand and help teens dealing with addictions
  • Developing a presentation on the topic of youth addiction that can be shared with other educators or students

Teachers can also seek more information about teen health through Fresno Pacific courses such as Health and Today’s Teenager.

Teen substance abuse is an unfortunate issue that all teachers will come across in their careers. When that day comes, having taken a course on teen substance abuse will better prepare them to provide students the support they need.