How Parents Can Spot the Signs of Substance Abuse

Parents know there’s a lot to keep up with in the fast-moving world of teens. The latest trends in fashion, video games, music, social media …the list seems endless. But what about trends in drug and alcohol use? Would you know what they are, or what to look for?

Raising Awareness about drug and alcohol abuse

There’s help with that. “Hidden in Plain Sight, Telling Their Secrets,” a program developed by The Council on Alcoholism and Addictions of the Finger Lakes is designed to help parents, teachers and others learn about current local drug trends.

Even if your child isn’t using drugs or alcohol, this program provides information that is important for anyone who has a relationship with young adults.

“The purpose is to raise awareness and start conversations about drug and alcohol abuse,” said Timothy VanDamme, executive director of the Council on Alcoholism and Addictions of the Finger Lakes. “We all need to work together to raise healthy families and keep our children and community safe.”

Can you spot the warning signs?

I attended a recent presentation of the program. It began with a replica of a teen’s bedroom. There was a bed, a dresser and a desk with a chair. Clothing, food and drink containers were lying about. Pictures and “mementos” covered the desk and posters hung on the wall.

The contents of the room looked innocent enough.

Participants went through the bedroom and identified objects that could possibly warn of substance use. They looked closely at items on the desk and bed, and picked through the pile of clothes on the floor.

Amazingly, there were 49 items hiding throughout the small space.

Some warning signs of substance abuse were easy to identify:

  • A photo of a boy and his friends drinking
  • A bong
  • A small vodka bottle
  • A Juul (an electronic cigarette)

Girl with an electronic cigarette

Other signs weren’t so obvious.

The Signs that Went Unnoticed

Here are some of the items that I didn’t see or realize could hint at substance abuse:

  • A ping pong ball on the desk. What if there was no ping pong table in the home, or the teen didn’t regularly play the game? Could it be used for a game of “beer pong?”
  • “Bracelets” that could be used to smoke marijuana
  • A pipe disguised as a marker.

Photos are courtesy of Council on Alcoholism and Addictions of the Finger Lakes “Hidden in Plain Sight” presentation

  • Items that could hide drug paraphernalia or alcohol, like beverage cans with false bottoms and hats and undergarments with hidden pockets. To the uninformed, these items may never be identified. It was surprising to learn how easy it can be to purchase – or even make – some items.

Photos are courtesy of Council on Alcoholism and Addictions of the Finger Lakes “Hidden in Plain Sight” presentation

In addition to the search for warning signs in the mock bedroom, the program also provides education about the drugs that are readily available in our community, including marijuana, heroin, and fentanyl. Program attendees learn about what these drugs look like and how they’re used.

“The More I learn, The better parent I can be”

Russ Kenyon is a parent of teens ages 15 and 17. The program, he said, expanded his horizons.

“The more I learn, the better parent I can be,” he said. “I thought I would pick up on these things. I was surprised. Now I have a better awareness of things that I wouldn’t have thought twice about. I recommend any parent go through this, your eyes will be opened.”

Trends in substance abuse are always changing. Therefore, VanDamme and his team are always conducting more research and updating presentations, which he said is very worthwhile.

“With the opioid epidemic, alcohol consumption, vaping issues and other drug abuses we want to reach as many people as possible,” he said. “It’s our goal to witness a reduction in drug and/or alcohol use among the adolescents and young adults in our community.”

“Hidden in Plain Sight, Telling Their Secrets” is a free program. Participants should be 21 or older (due to program content). To register or host an event, call the Council on Alcoholism and Addictions of the Finger Lakes at 315-789-0310 or visit their website:

Erika Gruszewski

One thought on “How Parents Can Spot the Signs of Substance Abuse

  1. Ryan Gray says:

    Thanks Karen for sharing this article. This was a very eye opening read. For someone who has had to deal with substance abuse, I could relate to quite a few things you mentioned. In my experience, I was lucky enough to find great people and therapy at Comprehensive Counseling Services, LLC. Early intervention and professional help can really help a person who is going through any form of addiction.

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