Alcohol and other drugs: what’s safe for teenagers

There’s no safe level of alcohol use for children under 18 years. Their brains and bodies are still developing and can be easily damaged.

Using other drugs like cannabis, crystal meth, ecstasy and cocaine is never safe at any age.

Using alcohol and other drugs isn’t always the same thing as having a problem with them. But if your child is regularly using or overusing alcohol or other drugs, or feels that she can’t have a good time without them, it’s a very serious issue.

Alcohol and other drug problems: warning signs

It’s not always easy to tell whether a young person is having problems with alcohol or other drugs.

Some signs that your child is using alcohol or other drugs might be up-and-down moods, angry outbursts and big changes to clothes, friends and interests. But these signs are a normal part of adolescence too.

Here are some other warning signs that might mean you need to act.

School and social life
Your child might be:

  • doing worse at school or skipping school
  • using secret or ‘coded’ language when talking with friends
  • being more secretive about his things or where he’s going
  • isolating himself more than usual
  • 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.

Your child might:

  • have changes in mood that are out of character
  • start wearing sunglasses more often or indoors
  • have changes in sleeping habits – for example, high energy and sleeplessness, trouble waking up or a desire to sleep for most of the day
  • start using incense or air fresheners to hide the smell of smoke or other substances.

Health and hygiene
Your child might:

  • have sudden breakouts of very ‘angry’ acne
  • want clothes washed more than usual
  • feel nauseous or vomit in the morning or when she comes home
  • start using mouthwash or breath mints for the first time, or more than usual.

Your child might:

  • borrow or ask to borrow more money than usual
  • sell possessions, or steal money or other items from your home
  • have more money than usual for no obvious reason.

Unusual items
If you find any of the following items in your child’s possession, it’s a good idea to talk to your child about them while also trying to keep an open mind:

  • drug paraphernalia, like needles, pipes, rolling papers or small plastic zip-lock bags
  • bottles of eye-drops – 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 few teenagers might try illegal drugs, like cannabis or ecstasy. But for some, experimenting with or using alcohol and other drugs can be a sign of more serious problems and can lead to substance abuse and poor mental health.

You think your child is using alcohol or other drugs: first steps

If you notice any of the signs above or find things that worry you, the first step is talking with your child.

This might be a difficult conversation, but it’s important for your child’s long-term mental and physical health that you get the 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.

Plan ahead
Before you speak with your child, learn more about alcohol and other drugs. Learning more prepares you for helping your child. It’s also a good idea to plan and practise what you’ll say to your child. This can help you stay as calm as possible.

Encourage your child to talk
It’s important to keep lines of communication open, listen calmly and hear your child’s side of the story. This could be hard, and you might have to try a few times.

If your child is affected by drugs or is drunk, or 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 is sober.

Keep your communication positive
If you’re calm and positive, you’re more likely to get some information from your child about what he’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 labels like ‘drug user’ or ‘addict’. It might seem like you’re making the issue bigger than it is. This can mean your child won’t want to be part of the conversation.

Focus on behaviour
If you’re concerned about your child’s behaviour, try focusing on the behaviour, rather than on alcohol and other drugs.

For example, your child might be behaving in aggressive or other ways that seem to be a result of alcohol or other drug use. You could say something like, ‘I’ve noticed that you’ve started behaving in an aggressive way at home recently. Can we talk about it?’

Try to stay calm and choose your words carefully.

Your child is using alcohol or other drugs: what to do next

After you’ve spoken with your child and you have an idea of how serious the problem is, you can learn about the particular drugs your child is using. Note that drug fact sheets will usually give the worst-case scenarios, so try not to panic or make assumptions until you find out more.

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 their own decisions to cut down or stop their use of alcohol or other drugs.

But if your child is having a problem with alcohol or other drugs, there are some simple things you could try, if they’re right for your family:

  • Remove alcohol from your home.
  • Pick up your child if he’s out at night.
  • Withdraw, adjust or closely monitor your child’s pocket money.

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

You can be a role model for your child in your behaviour and attitudes towards alcohol and other drugs. You can also influence your child by supervising and monitoring her use of and exposure to alcohol and other drugs, staying connected with your child, and managing your child’s behaviour in a positive way.

Where to get help for alcohol and other drug use

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. GPs and other health professionals can suggest strategies and give advice.

Family members, friends and other adults that your child is close to might be able to help and support you and your child. Remember that support for your whole family can be just as important as help for your child.

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