Opening up a conversation with young people about drug use

Talking to a young person about their drug or alcohol use can be very difficult. Establishing a collaborative, open and trusting relationship with the young person will go a long way to making these conversations easier and more meaningful. Young people will always appreciate someone who can tune into their perspective and show empathy. As their experiences and attitudes impact on this view, so too will yours. It is always good to have an understanding of your own biases and perspective on drug use before having such conversations.

When Rachel found some pills in Natalie’s pocket when she was doing the washing she was shocked. She immediately wanted to talk to her but was feeling really worried and filled with a sense of dread.

Young people are usually given a pretty clear message from adults and society in general that drug use is bad or negative. Many young people feel a great deal of shame and bringing up this subject is likely to make them feel anxious, trapped or threatened. Sometimes this may trigger their flight or fight response and they might shut down and not talk or get angry and defensive.

There are some things that you can do and be aware of when it comes the time to raising the issue of drug use with the young person in your life.

Tips for discussing drug use:

  • Be genuine but intentional eg. Talking to a young person about their interest in gym and reflecting on differences between their work-out and those of their peers who use substances.
  • Remain focused on concern and desire to support rather than shaming “I’m really worried about you. What could I do to help?”
  • Be aware of your body language
  • The best way to raise the issue is through a general chat rather than in a confronting way “So I heard that lots more young people are using Ice at the moment, what do you think?”
  • Asking the young person to tell you about what they are doing, rather than making assumptions “Have you ever been offered anything when you’ve been out?”
  • Be aware of your own perspective on drugs and how it may impact on how you may respond to or understand the young person’s substance use
  • Plan the time to talk – things tend to not go so well when you are upset or if the young person is substance affected. Young people will sometimes give cues that they might want to chat, so keep an eye out.
  • Practice what you want to say, think about it advance and be prepared
  • Negotiate limits and consequences at the right time
  • Choose somewhere that the young person will feel safe and comfortable and is preferably private

What not to do:

  • Be directive, tell them they need to get help or stop. This will only put up a barriers to a young people seeking help and support.
  • Don’t be reactive in giving ultimatums or consequences
  • Don’t blame or make accusations
  • Avoid using hidden agendas or strategies to get what you want

Be patient, even if a young person doesn’t admit to using or having a problem and even if they find this type of conversation too difficult. If they have experiences where you are effectively communicating and are supportive, they will eventually feel more comfortable and be able to talk honestly with you.

Further Resources