• Alcohol, cannabis 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 to support the theory that using cannabis will automatically lead 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 are typically a period of experimentation, regardless of parenting skills and influence. Cannabis is the most common illegal drug used by teenagers, with around one in five having tried it at least once.

Parents typically worry about their child becoming dependent on drugs, such as methamphetamines (speed and ice), ecstasy, heroin and cocaine. However, the more likely threat to any teenager’s health is the use of legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco.

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

Reasons 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 psychological or physiological pain.

Drugs commonly 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, of Australians aged 12–17 years in 2013: 

  • 72.3 per cent were choosing not to drink, but 8.7 per cent had more than four standard drinks at least once a month
  • around one in six (14.8 per cent) had tried cannabis
  • 94.7 per cent had never smoked tobacco and just under 3.7 per cent smoked on a daily basis.

According to the report Australian secondary school students’ use of tobacco, alcohol, and over-the-counter and illicit substances in 2011:

  • three per cent had tried amphetamines
  • three per cent had tried ecstasy
  • around one in six 12–17 year olds had deliberately sniffed inhalants at least once – such as petrol, glue and solvents
  • 1.9 per cent of 12–17 year olds who had taken cocaine had only used it once or twice
  • 1.5 per cent had tried heroin.

Cannabis as a ‘gateway’ drug for teenagers

Many parents are concerned that if their 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 support the theory that cannabis is a ‘gateway’ drug, which automatically leads to the use of other drugs. 

Preventing drug use in teenagers

There are no parenting skills or behaviours that guarantee a young person will never touch drugs. However, parents and guardians can reduce the possibility of a young person experiencing drug problems in a number of ways. 

Suggestions include: 

  • Foster a close and trusting relationship with your child from an early age, and support and encourage positive behaviour.
  • Model appropriate behaviour, such as drinking moderately, not smoking and not using illicit drugs.
  • Establish agreements and guidelines 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 snoop, or 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 say.
  • If your child gets into trouble with the police or has to go to court, support them, but let them cope with the consequences such as paying their own fines.

Where to get help


More information

Young people (13-19)

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Young people basics

Healthy eating

Identity and relationships

Sex and sexuality

Health and wellbeing

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

Last updated: June 2017

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