Alcohol, cigarettes, vapes 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.
Smoking cigarettes, vaping and breathing second-hand smoke and third-hand smoke or vapour are not safe at any age. Using other drugs like cannabis, crystal meth, ecstasy and cocaine is also never safe.
If your child is using or overusing alcohol or other drugs, or your child feels they can’t have a good time without alcohol or other drugs, it can be a serious problem.
Warning signs of teenage alcohol and other drug problems
Signs that your child is using alcohol or other drugs might be up-and-down moods, outbursts that are out of character, and big changes to clothes, friends and interests. But these signs are also typical parts of adolescence too.
Here are other warning signs.
School and social life
Your child might:
- do worse at school or skip school
- use secret or ‘coded’ language when talking with friends
- be more secretive about their things or where they’re going
- isolate themselves more than usual
- spend a lot of time with new friends who are less interested in school, sport and family or other activities
- wear 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, like high energy, sleeplessness, trouble waking up or a desire to sleep for most of the day
- seem very agitated or irritable, especially in the morning
- stay in their room more than usual
- avoid eye contact
- suddenly lose interest in family activities
- start using incense or air fresheners to hide the smell of smoke or other substances.
Health and hygiene
Your child might:
- feel nauseous or vomit in the morning or when they come home
- take less care of their appearance
- want clothes washed more than usual
- wash their hair more than usual
- start using mouthwash or breath mints for the first time or more than usual
- have rapid or large changes in weight.
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.
If you find any of the following items in your child’s possession, it’s a good idea to talk with your child 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, which can be used to mask bloodshot eyes or dilated pupils
- missing prescription drugs or alcohol from your home.
For many young people, trying alcohol, tobacco and vapes is a common part of adolescence. A few teenagers might try illegal drugs, like cannabis or ecstasy. For some, experimenting with or using alcohol and other drugs can be a sign of or lead to more serious problems. These include problematic substance use, substance dependence and poor mental health.
First steps when you think teenagers are using alcohol or other drugs
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.
These tips might help.
Before you speak with your child, learn more about alcohol and other drugs. You can do this by looking at online resources. 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. You might have to try a few times.
Try to choose a time when you’re ready and your child is sober. If your child is affected by drugs or drunk, or you’re angry and worked up, talking together isn’t likely to go well.
Keep conversations positive
If you’re calm and positive, you and your child are more likely to have an open and honest conversation. You can do this by using ‘I statements’ like ‘I feel concerned about your drinking’. It’s also best to avoid labels like ‘drug user’ or ‘addict’.
Blaming, lecturing, criticising or making value judgments might make your child shut down and lead to conflict.
Focus on behaviour
Try to talk about your child’s behaviour, rather than focusing on alcohol or other drugs. It’s a good idea to focus on examples.
For example, your child might be behaving aggressively or in other ways that seem to be the result of alcohol or other drug use. You could say something like, ‘I’ve noticed that you’ve started behaving aggressively at home recently. We need to talk about it. Let’s make a time to do that’.
Try to stay calm and choose your words carefully.
Next steps when teenagers are using alcohol or other drugs
After you’ve spoken with your child and you have an idea of how serious the problem is, you can learn more about the drugs your child is using. Drug fact sheets are a good source of information. They also tend to include worst-case scenarios, so try not to panic or make assumptions about your child or the problem.
Your child might not be ready to admit that their alcohol or other drug use is a serious issue. They might not want your help. If your child isn’t ready or interested, avoid forcing 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, there are things you can try, if they’re right for your family:
- Remove alcohol from your home.
- Supervise and monitor your child’s use of and exposure to alcohol and drugs.
- Renegotiate your family’s rules.
- Arrange drop-offs and pick-ups when your child goes out.
- 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, if you have one, and other children. This way 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 staying connected with your child and guiding your child’s behaviour in a positive way.
Where to get help for alcohol and other drug use
There are many services, resources and support options for you, your child and your family.
You could start by talking to your GP, your child’s school counsellor or teacher, or other school staff. GPs and other health professionals can suggest strategies and refer you to specialised services.
Family members, friends and other adults that your child is close to might be able to help and support you and your child. Support for your whole family can be just as important as help for your child.
Visit the Alcohol and Drug Foundation website for drug information, advice and counselling services in your state or territory.