Young People and Drugs

The teenage years are a time when many people begin to experiment with alcohol and other drugs. For most, substance use will not become a problem however some young people will go on to develop problems. This is particularly true for young people who have experienced trauma, instability or disconnection with their family.

What is it about teenagers and drugs?

There are some things that young people need to do as they develop into adults that make them particularly vulnerable.

They want to:

  • Do things that are pleasurable
  • Take risks
  • Experiment
  • Fit in

At the same time, they are still developing:

  • Impulse control
  • How to assess situations
  • Ability to perceive risks and anticipate negative consequences (see Adolescent Development)

What’s the go with ICE?

While there does seem to be more Ice (Methamphetamine) around and there are specific things to consider when a young person is using Ice. Ice problems, like other drug problems, are still people problems.

Why do young people use drugs?

  • “No reason, it was something to do”
  • “You can get away from all your troubles”
  • “Because it makes me feel good”
  • “Its exciting because its dangerous”
  • “Because my friends do it”

Young people use drugs for all sorts of different reasons, some are not so obvious. It is useful to understand that there is almost always some function or meaning for a young person.

  • To stop being bored
  • To help relax
  • To get motivated
  • To help with painful feelings such as grief, anxiety or anger
  • To slow down racing thoughts or intrusive memories
  • To fit in
  • To feel comfortable socially
  • To have interesting ideas and be creative
  • To help with side effects from medication

So when does drug use become a problem?

There is no right or wrong answer and there are actually a heap of different factors that can all have an influence over whether or not a young person's drug or alcohol use is a problem. It may be considered a problem if:

  • Their use has frequent negative impacts on health and wellbeing
  • They have less control over their use than what they want
  • Their use gets in the way of important activities such as school, work and home life

Experimentation does not necessarily lead to having a ‘drug problem’ or ‘drug addiction’. But the earlier they start the bigger risk they will have to go onto problematic use.

Warning Signs that substance use is becoming problematic

  • Sudden or frequent changes in mood
  • Changes in appetite or significant weight loss
  • Changes in school attendance, performance
  • Extensive efforts to cover up smells
  • Staying out late
  • Appearing Intoxicated
  • Finding Substances

Be careful! Lots of things young people do and ways they act can been seen as signs of drug use but really they are just normal parts of growing up or even could be related to mental health concerns or responses to relationship difficulties. e.g. Being rude, testing limits, demanding more, mood swings, change in appetite or energy levels.

How do I respond when they come home substance affected?

Ultimately your response to a young person will depend on how they present.

When a young person comes home intoxicated, rather than trying to work out what they have used, the best course of action is to deal with the symptoms you see.

There are some general things you can do:

  • Remain calm and reassure them that you are worried about them
  • Give them space and reduce environmental stimulation
  • Monitor them
  • Avoid information overload
  • Err on the side of caution and contact emergency services if required
  • Follow plans or procedures provide by the agency you work for.

The main message should be “I care about you and am worried about you” and to leave the ‘consequences’ or ‘discussion’ about their use until the next day.

They clearly have a problem. Why don’t they stop or get help?

It is common for those close to a young person thinking that they have a problem with substance use yet the young person thinks, or at least says, that they don’t.

Most of the time, it isn’t before the young person sees it as a problem themselves before they want to do something about it.

Some of the reasons why people don’t change:

  • It’s hard
  • They don’t want to or know how to
  • Don’t know other ways to cope with difficulties
  • They don’t have the supports or environment to help them change

Sometimes even the worst consequence of their use, is not enough to make a young person want to stop. At these times, there are things you can still do to help.

How can I help?

You don’t have to condone or “be alright” with drug or alcohol use but acknowledging their reasons for use can help promote a supportive and empathetic approach to the person you care about.

Some things that you might consider doing may be:

  • Look up information together, be open to learning with them. “I don’t know much about ‘glue’, tell me about your experiences, or lets see what information we can find out”
  • Explore ways to keep them safe.
  • Discuss limits that might be needed and consequences for this
  • Get support for the young person from a Youth Drug & Alcohol Service

It is important to consider that some of the time, when a young person’s risk is too high, professional intervention is required. There are services you can access to gain support regarding this or consult with the agency you work for.

Click here to find out more about how to respond to substance use.

Further Resources