By Raising Children Network, with the Centre for Adolescent Health
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Party leftovers including cigarette butts and beer bottles
 
Alcohol and other drug use in adolescence isn’t good for your child’s brain development, and can be bad for your child’s long-term physical and mental health. If you suspect your child is using alcohol or other drugs, you need to act.

Drug and alcohol use isn’t always the same thing as a drug and alcohol problem. But there’s no safe level of alcohol and drug use for children under 15. Their brains and bodies are still developing and can be easily damaged.

If your child’s regularly using or overusing alcohol and/or other drugs such as cannabis, or feels that she can’t have a good time without using drugs, it’s a very serious issue.

Warning signs

It’s not always easy to tell if a young person is having problems with alcohol or using other drugs. Some of the signs that your child is using can be a normal part of adolescence. These include up-and-down moods, angry outbursts and changes to clothes, friends and interests.

But you might start to be concerned if you notice any of the following in your child’s behaviour:

  • doing worse at school or skipping school
  • being more secretive about his things or where he’s going
  • using secret or ‘coded’ language when talking with friends
  • spending a lot of time with new friends who might be less interested in regular school or family activities
  • wearing different clothes or jewellery, especially ones that feature drug symbols or paraphernalia
  • borrowing or asking to borrow more money than usual
  • using incense or air fresheners to hide the smell of smoke or other substances
  • using mouthwash or breath mints for the first time, or in increased quantities.

If you find any of the following items in your child’s possession, you might want talk to your child about these while also trying to keep an open mind:

  • drug paraphernalia, such as pipes, rolling papers or small zip-lock bags
  • bottles of eyedrops – these can be used to mask bloodshot eyes or dilated pupils
  • missing prescription drugs or alcohol.
For many young people, trying alcohol and tobacco is a normal part of adolescence. A small number of young people might even try illegal drugs, such as cannabis. But for some, experimenting with or using alcohol and other drugs can signal more serious problems and lead to problems with substance abuse. You might like to read more about preventing alcohol use in adolescence.

Talking with your child about alcohol and other drug use

If you notice any of the signs above or find things that worry you, start by talking with your child.

This won’t necessarily be easy, but it’s important for your child’s long-term mental and physical health that you get a conversation going. Talking and actively listening are the first steps towards acknowledging that the issue is serious and doing something about it. Here are some tips that might help you get started.

  • Encourage your child to talk. This could be hard and it could take lots of goes to find a moment that’s right for both of you, but it’s important to keep the lines of communication open, listen calmly and hear your child’s side of the story.
  • Pick your moment. If your child’s affected by drugs or drunk, or if you’re angry and worked up, talking together isn’t likely to go well. Try to choose a time when you’re ready and your child’s sober.
  • Try to keep your communication positive. If you’re calm and positive, you’re more likely to get some information from your child about what she’s doing. Blaming, lecturing or criticising is more likely to make your child shut down, and might even lead to an argument. Try to avoid labelling your child with terms such as ‘drug user’ or ‘addict’. You might come across as dramatising the issue and being hysterical, which can mean your child won’t want to be part of the conversation.
  • If you’re concerned about your child’s behaviour, it might be a good idea to start the conversation with your child’s behaviour, rather than with alcohol or drugs. If there are particular aspects of his behaviour – for example, anger, bad moods or lying – that are upsetting you and seem to be a result of alcohol or other drug use, try to focus on that behaviour and explain how and why it upsets you. When you discuss your teenager’s alcohol and drug use, try to do so calmly and carefully.

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Our Talking to Teens interactive guide shows different ways parents and teenagers can talk about tricky situations such as alcohol and other drug use. You can see how different approaches to difficult issues can get different results.

Other things you can do

After you’ve spoken with your child and have an idea of how serious the issue is, learn more about alcohol and/or the other drug your child is using. Learning more can help you feel better prepared to help your child. Note that drug information sheets will usually give the worst-case scenarios, so try not to panic or make assumptions as you do your research.

You can offer help, but you can’t ‘cure’ your child. Your child might not be ready to admit that her alcohol or other drug use is a serious issue. She might not want your help. If your child isn’t ready or interested, you can’t force the issue. Young people need to make the decision to cut down or stop their alcohol or other drug use themselves.

If one of your children is going through a difficult time with alcohol or other drugs, it can impact on the whole family. Try to keep the lines of communication open with your partner and your other children so that you can all help to support each other.

Things to consider
If your child is having a problem with alcohol or other drugs, you’ll face a lot of questions. The answers will be unique to your family and will come from working out what you and your family need, but you might like to consider:

  • removing alcohol from your home
  • picking your child up if he’s out at night
  • withdrawing, adjusting or closely monitoring your child’s allowance.
Your behaviour and attitudes towards alcohol and other drugs send powerful messages. You can influence your child by supervising and monitoring your child’s use of and exposure to alcohol and other drugs, being responsible in your own use of alcohol and other drugs, staying connected with your child, and managing your child’s behaviour in a positive way. You can also read more about being a role model for your child.

Where to get help

There are many resources and support options for you, your child and your family.

You could start by talking to your GP, your child’s school counsellor, teacher or other school staff, family members and friends, or perhaps another adult that your child is close to.

Visit the Drug Info website to find a drug information and counselling service in your state or territory.

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