Understanding teenage drug use

Image of teens dancing at a music festival.

Your teenager may come into contact with drugs for the first time during adolescence and it can be a challenging topic to bring up with them for many reasons.

This can help if you:

  • want to talk to your teenager about drugs.

  • are worried that your teen will experience peer pressure from other teenagers using drugs.

  • are concerned that your teen is showing signs of drug use.

  • need more detailed information on Australian teenage drug use.

Fast facts about drugs and teenagers

The good news is that Aussie teenagers today are less likely to use drugs than they were previously. In fact, your generation may be far more likely to have used drugs than your kids and their friends.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 10% of Australian teenagers aged between 14-17 years said they’d tried an illegal drug in the past 12 months, compared to 23% of teens in 2001.

A quick snapshot of teenage drug use in Australia:

Teen recreational drug use of opioids

You may have heard about the ‘opioid crisis’ in the news. While taking prescription drugs without a doctor's prescription is more common among older Australians, teens are also experimenting with pharmaceuticals.

Pharmaceutical drugs that are often used to get high include:

  • Oxycontin, oxycodone: strong painkillers from the opioid family that can induce euphoric feelings.

  • Xanax, valium: sedatives used to relax, reduce anxiety or make a comedown less intense.

  • Ritalin: a speed-like drug (often prescribed for ADHD) that is often used by students to stay up late or to lose weight.

  • Fentanyl: a heroin-like painkiller from the opioid family with a high risk of addiction.

Where can I learn more about different types of drugs?

Your Room (a joint initiative by NSW Health and St Vincent's Alcohol and Drug Information Service) has an A-Z of Drugs, where you can learn about some of the most commonly used drugs affecting Australians right now.

The risks around teens using drugs

It’s completely normal for you to be concerned about drugs. The only time drugs and teens are in the news is when there’s been a tragedy. This makes it easy for parents to freak out.

Drugs can definitely be risky. When you throw together developing minds and mystery substances, scary things can happen. Plus, the exact same dose can affect two people in wildly different ways.

While it’s far more likely if your teen tries drugs a couple of times that nothing bad will happen, there are always risks. It’s important to know about these, so that you can share them with your child.

Physical health impacts of drugs:

  • The effects of drugs can vary drastically from person to person.

  • Many illegal drugs contain unknown substances.

  • Drugs can lead to overdose or cause psychosis.

Mental health and drugs:

  • Addiction can have a negative impact on mental health.

  • Using drugs at a young age can be a trigger for mental illness.

  • Drugs can make an existing condition worse.

Negative impacts to school and work performance:

  • Drug use can impact on punctuality and reliability, and reduce the ability to concentrate.

  • Drug use in teens can also affect their relationships with peers and students, and may influence them to refuse attending school.

  • By affecting school and work performance, drugs may limit future opportunities.

Behavioural risks:

  • Drug use may increase risk-taking behaviours, such as practising unsafe sex or driving while intoxicated or high.

When teenage drug use becomes habitual it can lead to addiction, health problems and issues with the law. For tips on handling a problem with drug use in your family, check out teenagers and drug addiction.

How parents can help a teen using drugs

  • Drink responsibly. Modelling responsible behaviour can teach teens more about drug and alcohol use than words alone.

  • Talk with your teen, but also make sure to listen.

  • Give them space to ask questions, too (rather than just lecturing them).

  • Be aware of and involved in your teens’ lives.

  • Get to know their friends and how they spend their time.

Why teenagers might use drugs

  • To relieve stress or bad feelings.

  • Social influence by other teens using drugs.

  • To feel closer to their mates.

  • Out of curiosity and wanting to try something new.

  • To feel more in control.

Help your teenager find alternatives to drug use

Ways to help them relieve emotional distress:

  • Allow opportunities to talk together about emotions, and to show that this is normal and useful.

  • Go for a drive together. This can be a great time to talk about feelings.

  • Allow opportunities for emotional expression, such as through physical activity (like playing sport) or a creative pursuit (like playing music or making art).

  • If you feel uncomfortable talking about feelings, you may need to work through this on your own first.

Ways to help your teen feel in control:

  • Make decisions together, rather than issuing orders as a parent or fighting with your teen when you disagree on something.

  • Encourage them to get involved with sports and creative pursuits.

Ways to help your teen feel more connected:

  • Spend time together in a fun way where you can work together on a shared goal.

  • Play games together, or initiate an activity that you all get something out of.

  • Start a conversation with them after social situations to better understand their feelings.

  • Talk about the good parts of spending time with friends.

  • Be genuinely curious, but be careful not to pry too much.

Talking and asking questions about drugs about drugs in a casual way can make it easier to explore an issue that may be sensitive for both of you. Your teen might have big questions they don’t know how to ask, as well. There are some strategies you could use when you’re ready to have the talk.

What can I do now?

  • Learn about other ways to handle the topic of drugs with your teen.