What are the progressive stages of drug addiction, especially as it plays out in the life of a teenager? My oldest son has been exhibiting some strange behaviour lately, and I'm worried that he may be getting involved with some form of drug abuse. Can you provide me with any helpful hints and clues?

In most cases a full-blown drug problem develops or unfolds in four distinct stages. Each stage represents a deeper and more serious level of danger; the farther the drug abuser moves along this path, the harder he will find it to turn back. This is why it's so important for concerned parents to stay alert. If you see signs of an addiction beginning to develop, you need to intervene as early as possible.

The first stage is experimentation or what we might call “entering the drug gateway.”
During this phase drug use is occasional, sporadic and often unplanned. It's something that just “happens” over the weekend, on long summer nights or at someone’s unsupervised party. It's usually precipitated by peer pressure, curiosity, thrill seeking or desire to look and feel grown-up. Appropriately enough, these experiences usually involve the so-called “gateway drugs” – cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana, and possibly inhalants. Kids who are simply experimenting with drugs find it easier to achieve a drug “high” because tolerance has not been developed. If you're afraid that your kids may be involved in this kind of behaviour, look for signs of intoxication and develop a keen nose for tobacco or alcohol on the breath. You'll probably see little if any change in normal behaviour between episodes of drug use.

During stage two drug abuse becomes more regular and habitual.
Alcohol and other drugs are used not only on weekends but also on weekdays, and not only with friends but also when alone. In addition, the quantities of alcohol and drugs ingested may increase as tolerance develops. Fellow drinkers and drug users become preferred companions, and teens may stay out later at night, overnight or all weekend. At this stage watch for signs of hangover; declining academic performance and unexplained absences; lack of interest in outside activities, such as sports; withdrawn, sullen, or hostile behaviour; lies and deception; and the disappearance of money and other valuables. A teen who has progressed this far may also experience blackouts – periods during which drugs or alcohol impair the memory. “What happened last night?” becomes a frequent question, and the individual tends to spend more energy looking forward to the next experience.

The third stage is marked by the crossing of a very definite line.
At this point we can picture the drug abuser as standing waist deep in the mire of addiction and steadily sinking. He begins to live for alcohol and drugs – they are the primary focus of his attention. Becoming high is a daily event, and it can only be achieved by using harder, more dangerous and more expensive drugs. As a result, the fledgling addict may become involved in serious theft and drug dealing. Watch for increasing social isolation; complete disassociation from non-drug-using friends; more solitary drug use; escalation of domestic conflicts; and loss of nearly all parental control. It is also highly possible that you will discover a stash of drugs at home. Your teen may even be arrested for possession, drug-dealing drugs or driving under the influence.

Stage four is reached when we can say that the subject is drowning in addiction.
He lives his life in a state of constant intoxication. School and jobs go by the wayside. Blackouts become more frequent and the addict's health and physical appearance deteriorate. Guilt, self-hatred and thoughts of suicide increase, and the adolescent abandons any apparent interest in spiritual matters. At this point he may start to use injectable drugs like heroin, become involved in casual sexual relationships (sometimes in exchange for drugs), and sink even deeper into theft and other criminal activities. If things get this bad, you will no longer have any control over your adolescent's behaviour. He may become violent, and will almost certainly deny that he has a problem with drugs. Siblings will be negatively affected as the entire family becomes preoccupied with or overwhelmed by the consequences of the drug user's behaviour. At this stage recovery is nearly impossible apart from treatment programs and professional intervention.

If you need more information about the dangers of drug abuse, please feel free to get in touch with our counselling department for a free consultation. Our professional counsellors would be more than happy to speak with you over the phone and assist you in any way they can.

Additional resources:
Celebrate Recovery
Canadian Assembly of Narcotics Anonymous
Teen Challenge
Rock Solid Refuge
Mercy Canada

© 1997, 2007 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Adapted from "The Complete Book of Baby and Child Care." Published by Tyndale House Publishers.

If you liked this article and would like to go deeper, we have some helpful resources below.

Our recommended resources

Join our newsletter

Advice for every stage of life delivered straight to your inbox