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How to talk to your teen about drugs ( … and not make it awkward)

As the music festival season cranks up, how do we as parents talk to our kids about drugs and their risks? Here’s what you need to know.

Angela Tufvesson
July 2019

Parenting teenagers can be fraught with worry, especially when it comes to drugs, but there’s a lot we can do to communicate their risks to our teens.

According to the Australian Government’s Department of Health, nearly one in five deaths in Australia is drug related, and drug abuse continues to be a serious health issue among young people. It’s associated with road traffic injuries, depression, impaired brain function, assault, overdoses and blood-borne diseases such as hepatitis C.

Rates of teenage drug use at music festivals is a field of particular concern for parents, with the NSW Coroner holding an inquest in 2019 into the deaths of six suspected overdoses at music festivals in late 2018 and early 2019.

Why do teens use drugs?

For many of the same reasons as adults: to feel better, relax, alleviate boredom, experiment, or to feel part of a group. Cannabis is the most commonly used illegal drug among young people.

The Alcohol and Drug Foundation (ADF) reports 15% of Aussie teens have tried the drug, compared to 3% who’ve taken amphetamines (such as speed or ice) or ecstasy, 2% who’ve taken cocaine and 1.5% who’ve taken heroin.

Like many aspects of adolescence, drug use falls subject to fads. Paul Dillon, director of Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia, which delivers drug and alcohol education sessions to schools, says ecstasy (MDMA) use is becoming more widespread. “The normalisation of the drug among school-based young people is very worrying,” he says.

According to the ADF, ‘monkey dust’ or MDPV, another party drug with similar effects to ecstasy, such as feelings of euphoria and increased sociability, can induce anxiety and paranoia, and has been linked to deaths in the UK.

The trouble with monkey dust, and other illicit drugs, is that it’s easily confused with drugs in the same chemical class, called ‘synthetic cathinones’, and users can never be certain about the substance from its street name alone.

“Most illicit substances are manufactured in illegal clandestine laboratories, so it’s almost impossible to know exactly what might be in the drug,” says Melinda Lucas from the ADF.

Another danger with illegal drugs is that they affect everyone differently and there’s no way to know how your own body will respond.

It’s no secret that many teens first encounter drugs at music festivals, where the culture of drug taking has remained strong since Woodstock. “People have been taking drugs at music festivals for 30 or 40 years,” says Melinda.

But Paul says it’s becoming more common for teens to access drugs in private homes. “The reality is most school-based young people actually access drugs through their friendship networks,” he says. “With drugs like ecstasy, for example, you hear of young people popping a couple of pills to go to someone’s house party on a Saturday night.”

What impact do drugs have on teen brains?

Drugs can be dangerous for everyone, but young minds are particularly susceptible to the effects of illegal substances, says Melinda.

“A teenager’s brain continues to develop up until the age of about 25 and there are a lot of quite specific pathways that can be interrupted by drug use in those developmental years, particularly between the ages of 12 and 13, up to 19 or 20,” she says.

A recent Swinburne University of Technology study found teens who used cannabis just once or twice showed significant increases in the volume of their grey matter, which is associated with symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and the inability to respond to emotions in a socially acceptable way.

“Young people weigh risk and reward differently to adults,” says Paul. “When young people go into a social situation where there’s drug taking, they look at the risk and reward and they can see the reward – they’ll have a good time. The risks are downplayed, so they’re more likely to take risks.

“And because they don’t have life experience, unfortunately, when something goes wrong, they really don’t know what to do. This is where you see tragedies like people not calling ambulances.”

How to talk about drugs with your teen

It might seem like teens listen more to friends, celebrities and people they follow on Instagram than to their parents, but the research suggests otherwise, especially when it comes to drug education. ADF research shows that young people view their parents as credible sources of information, and that parental beliefs and behaviour influence children.

  • It’s best to think of the drug chat as an ongoing conversation instead of a one-off talk.
    “Parents remain a significant influence over their teenagers, even if at times it might not seem like they are,” says Melinda. “It’s important for parents to have an ongoing dialogue with their teenager about alcohol and other drugs. If teens feel like their parents have what they may perceive as a very negative or uninformed attitude about illicit drugs, then they’re less likely to ask them questions or go to them for help.”

  • Be clear about your expectations of how you want your teen to behave.
    Try to understand their thoughts and feelings about drug-related issues but be sure to emphasise the risks of drug use and what to do if something goes wrong. Try to stay up to date with drug street names and how different drugs affect the body. If you don’t have the answers, let your teen know you’ll find out what they want to know.

  • If you have past experiences with drugs, don’t feel the need to talk about them.
    There’s no need to overshare – it’s important to be a parent in this situation.

  • If you’re concerned your teen might be taking drugs, tread carefully and avoid making assumptions. “It’s a fine line with parents around illicit drugs,” Paul says. “If you go too hard and start accusing them of taking drugs, you could destroy a relationship built on trust and honesty in one fell swoop. Almost all the signs that your teen could potentially be using drugs are typical signs of adolescence. The most important thing is to keep talking to your teen.”

The good news about drugs

Most young people don’t take drugs and teens are using fewer drugs than 20 years ago.

An Australian study published in Drug and Alcohol Review that surveyed more than 41,000 teens found cannabis use fell significantly between 1999 and 2015. And according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 28% of young people used illegal drugs in 2016, compared to 37% in 2001. And fewer young people are drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes.

“Contrary to what we often read, young people have made smarter decisions around alcohol and illicit drugs in the last 10 or 20 years than they ever have done,” says Melinda. “In fact, the age range where we see these behaviours increasing is among adults, not teenagers.”

Paul agrees: “The vast majority of school-based young people don’t take drugs. We’ve got some drugs at much lower levels than they were back in the ’90s. Cannabis use has almost halved among school-based young people. Amphetamine use is down. Opioid use is down.”

Resources for parents of teenagers:

  • Kids Helpline is a free and confidential helpline open 24/7 for kids and young people with specialised counsellors, 1800 55 1800, and its online resource is helpful for parents.

  • The Alcohol and Drug Foundation demystifies the different kinds of drugs available, helps parents guide teens to stay safe at parties and events, and has a list of drug information and counselling services in your state or territory.

  • Healthdirect has more information about drugs and how to navigate them with your teenager.

  • The Raising Children parenting website features national and state-based resources for parents and children.

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