• Alcohol, cannabis (marijuana) and tobacco are the most common drugs used by teenagers.
  • Young people use drugs for many reasons: for fun, out of curiosity, to feel part of a group or to change how they feel because they want to feel better or different.
  • There is no evidence that using cannabis automatically leads to someone using other drugs such as amphetamines and heroin.
  • Help is available for parents and young people who have concerns about drug use.

The teenage years can be a time of experimentation for young people, regardless of parenting skills and influence.

As a parent you may worry about your child becoming dependent on illegal drugs, such as methamphetamines (speed and ice), ecstasy, heroin and cocaine.

However, the more likely threat to your teenager’s health is the use of legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco.

Cannabis (marijuana) is the most common illegal drug used by teenagers, with around one in five having tried it at least once.

There is no way to guarantee your child will never take drugs, but you can reduce the possibility of them experiencing drug problems in a number of ways.

Why teenagers take drugs

Young people use drugs for similar reasons that adults do – to change how they feel because they want to feel better or different. Other reasons may include:

  • socialising with friends, peer pressure or the need to feel part of a group
  • relaxation or fun
  • boredom
  • curiosity, experimentation or wanting to take risks
  • to escape from mental or physical pain, or challenging circumstances
  • to feel in control.

Drugs used by teenagers

Alcohol, cannabis and tobacco are the three most commonly used drugs among young people. According to the National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2016, of Australians aged 12 to 17 years: 

  • 80% of females and 83% of males were choosing not to drink alcohol
  • 8.7% had more than four standard drinks at least once a month
  • 94.7% had never smoked tobacco and just under 3.7% smoked on a daily basis.

According to the Australian Secondary Students’ Alcohol and Drug (ASSAD) survey, in 2017:

  • 17% had tried cannabis
  • 2% had tried amphetamines
  • 3% had tried ecstasy
  • 18% had deliberately sniffed inhalants at least once – such as petrol, glue and solvents
  • 2% had tried cocaine
  • 1% had tried heroin.

Cannabis leading to other teenage drug use

You may be concerned that if your child tries cannabis it will only be a matter of time before they progress to other drugs, such as amphetamines and heroin. However, there is no evidence to show that cannabis is a drug that automatically leads to the use of other drugs. 

Preventing drug use in teenagers

There are no parenting skills or behaviours that guarantee your child will never touch drugs. However, there are ways you can reduce the possibility of them experiencing drug problems. 

Suggestions include: 

  • Develop a close and trusting relationship with your child from an early age, and support and encourage positive behaviour.
  • Show appropriate behaviour yourself, such as drinking moderately, not smoking and not using illicit drugs.
  • Establish agreements and rules about what is acceptable behaviour around alcohol and drugs.
  • Encourage a healthy approach to life, including good foods, regular exercise and sports.
  • Encourage your child to have more than one group of friends.
  • Allow your child to practise responsibility and develop good decision-making skills from an early age.
  • Keep yourself informed about drugs and educate your child on the dangers of drug use. Do not exaggerate or make information up.
  • Have open and honest discussions about drugs.

If you suspect your child is taking drugs

There are no specific signs or behaviours that can tell you a young person is definitely using drugs. Uncharacteristic behaviours such as mood swings, a drop in schooling performance, different friends and a changed appearance may indicate drug use – but they could also indicate other issues that are not drug related. 

If you suspect your child is using drugs: 

  • If possible, don’t react on your first impulse – give yourself time to think.
  • Resist the urge to search your child’s room or belongings for evidence.
  • Research drugs so that you have the facts.
  • Raise your concerns calmly with your child when you both feel relaxed.
  • If your child is taking drugs, don’t issue ultimatums.
  • Try to educate your child on the health and lifestyle risks.
  • You may have to accept that an older teenager will not stop taking their drug, no matter what you want.

ReachOut has tips on how to talk to teenagers about drugs.

Where to get help

  • If an overdose is suspected, call 000 for an ambulance immediately
  • Your GP (doctor)
  • DrugInfo, Tel. 1300 85 85 84
  • DirectLine – for 24-hour confidential drug and alcohol telephone counselling, information and referral, Tel. 1800 888 236
  • CounsellingOnline – for counselling and referral
  • Family Drug Help – for information and support for people concerned about a relative or friend using drugs, Tel. 1300 660 068
  • Parentline – a confidential and anonymous counselling phone service for parents and carers on parenting issues, Tel. 13 22 89
  • Youth Support and Advocacy Service – available to young people experiencing serious disadvantage, Tel. 1800 458 685

More information

Young people (13-19)

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Young people basics

Healthy eating

Identity and relationships

Sex and sexuality

Health and wellbeing

Content Partner

This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by: Alcohol and Drug Foundation

Last updated: March 2020

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