Identifying drug use

Adolescence can be a tough time for parents. Your child is changing a lot and you may not feel as close to them as you used to. You might be worried that they’re using drugs. This is a tricky situation, because drugs can affect people differently making it really hard to tell for sure that someone is using them. Some of the behaviours that might concern you (mood swings, desire for privacy, less involvement with the family) are also pretty typical for teenagers.

Girls on bench looking at their phones

The majority of young people do not drink alcohol or take illegal drugs

Media and pop culture can make it seem like most young people are using alcohol and drugs, but in reality this just isn’t the case. But the (incorrect) perception that everyone else is doing it can make substance use seem normal to a young person, so consider talking to your child about how it isn’t true. Even the young people who do experiment with alcohol and drugs at some point are unlikely to become dependent on them – most people who use these substances aren’t addicted.

Signs to watch for

Whether or not drugs are involved, when a child isn’t acting like themselves they could need your attention and help. Drug use, especially severe drug use, can be accompanied by the following:

  • unexplained need for money
  • disappearing money and valuables
  • problems with memory
  • trouble with the police
  • frequent absences from school/work
  • declining school/work performance
  • ignoring activities that used to be important to them
  • mood swings
  • tiredness
  • explosive outbursts
  • minimal interaction with family
  • changes in eating habits
  • sudden changes of friends
  • poor concentration
  • withdrawing socially.

Talk to teachers

If you’re really worried about your child, talk to their teachers at school and ask how they’ve been doing.

Decreasing academic performance, behaviour issues, absences and other problems would signify your child is experiencing difficulties which need attention.

Their teachers might also have some insight into their social life at school, who they spend their time with and whether that is a concern.

Most people who take drugs don’t become dependent on them

There’s also a difference between experimenting with drugs, and using them regularly, and becoming dependent on them.

Even when someone is dependent, it’s not the same for everyone. Dependency can be very mild, or it can be compulsive drug use (often called addiction), or anything in between. It’s impossible to say how long or how often a person uses a drug before they’ll become dependent because it varies between people and between drugs.

Even if you’re worried your child might be using substances, it’s a bad idea to search their room for evidence. We know it’s tempting, but it can break down the trust between you and your child and create feelings of suspicion and anger. It’s always better to talk to them instead.

If you do think you’ve found a drug that your child is using, ask your child what it is. It’s possible that they may be mistaken, because illegal drugs often look similar and are often confused with each other. Our drugs facts may help identify it. If you haven’t talked with your child about alcohol or drugs before, now is the time —but it’s important to wait until you have simmered down, and your child isn’t intoxicated or tired.

When you do talk to them, consider:

  • the best approach. It’s easy to be judgemental and accusing, especially when you’re worried and upset. But try to talk to them about their motivation– why they’re using the substance, how it feels, and what the result is.
  • assuring them that you are concerned about their wellbeing, and the risk of drug use.
  • explaining that their brain is continuing to develop until their mid-20s, and that they are at a higher risk of harm than an adult.
  • letting them know how you feel about them drinking or using drugs, such as disappointment, fear, anger, frustration, exasperation.

You may also want to talk to their friend’s parents.

Having your child drug tested at home is risky. For example, if your child denies taking drugs, your relationship can be seriously damaged by creating mistrust and suspicion. They could be extremely upset that you don’t believe them – especially if they really aren’t using drugs.

It’s always better to talk about the issues, and your concerns with your child.

Drug testing kits can be bought online and from some pharmacies which will test for a range of illegal drugs. Sometimes these kits are promoted to parents. Although the reliability and quality of these testing kits has improved, most of the kits are still limited. For example, they can only detect use of common illegal drugs like cannabis and amphetamines, and not new psychoactive substances like synthetic cannabis and NBOMes. Sometimes the possibility of being tested will drive a person to use one of these new drugs that won’t be tested for, so they will pass the test. Reports suggest new synthetic drugs have more serious side effects than drugs like cannabis.

At best, a positive drug test only indicates drug use has occurred in the past. It cannot tell how often a person uses a drug, or whether that person has a drug problem. And there is always a chance of a mistaken result. It cannot tell you how to deal with the situation.

Before you decide to test your child, consider what you’ll do in the case of a positive result and a negative result. Where will that leave you, and what actions are you prepared to take?

  1. AIHW, (2013), National Drug Strategy Household Survey.
  2. Cancer Council Victoria, (2012), Australian secondary school students’ use of tobacco, alcohol, and over-the-counter and illicit substances in 2011.