Drugs and young people

Many parents worry that their teenage children might be using, or might start using, drugs. Sometimes, drug use can have serious effects on health or lead to accidents and injuries. It may affect performance at school, limiting future career choices. Parents may also worry that their teenager’s drug use will lead to trouble with the law and long-term drug dependence.

Recognising that your child is using drugs, and dealing with the situation, can be challenging.

What do we mean by ‘drugs’?

When people talk about ‘drugs’ they usually mean illicit (illegal) substances, such as amphetamines, cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy and heroin. It is important to remember that the ‘legal’ drugs — alcohol and tobacco — are still the greatest cause of drug-related harm in our society. Together with medicines, these 2 are the drugs young people use most frequently. A 2008 survey of Australian secondary school students found that more than 90 per cent of 16-17 year olds had tried alcohol at some time in their lives and two-thirds had used it in the last month. Almost half had tried tobacco smoking. In comparison, only 22 per cent had ever tried cannabis — the most widely used illicit drug — and even fewer (2 to 7 per cent) had ever used drugs such as amphetamines, ecstasy or opiates.

Experimentation and peer pressure

It is also important to remember that teenagers commonly experiment and take risks as part of the process of developing their own identity. They want to be independent of their parents and to fit in with their peer group. These are all things that increase the chance they will try drugs. Almost all young people will be exposed to illicit drugs at some time. Many will try them for the same reasons as adults — to socialise, out of curiosity, because it seems fun or because their friends use them. Among those who try illicit drugs, few will use them regularly.

Ways to recognise if your child is using drugs

It is not always easy for parents to tell if their child is using or experimenting with drugs. There are no physical or personality signs that are specific to drug use.

Some of the signs that might indicate drug use — or another problem — include:

  • drop in school performance;
  • decrease in out-of-school activities (such as sport);
  • red or glassy eyes;
  • constant tiredness;
  • mood swings and irregular behaviour;
  • poor memory and concentration;
  • deteriorating physical appearance and grooming;
  • changed eating pattern;
  • suddenly having a new set of friends;
  • withdrawal from family contact; and
  • money or valuable items going missing.

Of course, many of these are features of normal adolescence, so it is important not to jump to conclusions.

Guidelines for dealing with teenagers and drugs

How you handle known or suspected drug use by your child will depend partly on how other matters are dealt with in your family. There are no hard and fast rules. These guidelines might help.

  • Don’t panic. Talk with your child about your concerns.
  • Choose a time for this talk when you are not angry or upset and when there are no distractions.
  • Don’t be judgmental or start giving orders. This will only turn the teenager off. Be honest about your concerns and encourage your child to talk about what they are taking and if there are any special reasons why they are using drugs.
  • Use open questions. For example, ask them about the good things they get from drugs, but also ask them about the bad side. Ask whether they see any risks and how these could be addressed.
  • Listen to what they have to say. Don’t interrupt them. Make it a discussion, not an argument.
  • Educate yourself about alcohol and drugs and the associated issues. Discuss these with your child. Most young people are ignorant of the facts, basing their beliefs on what they hear from friends.
  • Set a good example. Keep your own use of alcohol, medicines and other drugs within safe limits.

Although many children will experiment with drugs, most of them will come to no harm and will find better ways of spending their money.

Talking with your children about drugs in an open, non-threatening way is considered the best approach to help them through this challenging time in their lives.