Alcohol and other drugs: what’s safe for teenagers

There’s no safe level of alcohol use for children under 18 years because their brains and bodies are still developing.

Using other drugs like cannabis, ecstasy and cocaine is never safe.

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 using drugs, 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 of the signs that your child is using alcohol or other drugs include up-and-down moods, angry outbursts and 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
  • have changes in sleeping habits – for example, high energy and sleeplessness or trouble waking up
  • 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 acne that’s more ‘angry’ than usual
  • 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. But for some, experimenting with or using alcohol and other drugs can a sign of more serious problems and can lead to problems with substance abuse and mental health.

Talking about your child’s use of alcohol and other drugs

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.

Planning 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.

Encouraging 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 before you find a moment that’s right for both of you.

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.

Keeping 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 like ‘drug user’ or ‘addict’. It might seem like you’re making the issue bigger than it is or being hysterical. This can mean your child won’t want to be part of the conversation.

Focusing 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 an aggressive way, shouting or lying or in 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 and other drugs: other things to do

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 his alcohol or other drug use is a serious issue. He 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.

If one of your children is going through a hard 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 up your child if she’s out at night
  • withdrawing, adjusting or closely monitoring your child’s pocket money.
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 his 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.

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.

It’s important to remember that there’s no safe level of alcohol and drug use for children under 18 years. Their brains and bodies are still developing and can be easily damaged.