August 18, 2022

Understanding young people’s alcohol and drug use

Mentor talking to young men

Risk-taking is a key part of adolescent development.1 It helps young people develop their identity, build experience and gain peer approval.1

And for some young people, risk-taking will mean experimentation with alcohol and other drugs.

In Australia, the average age when young people start alcohol and other drug use is 16 and 19 years respectively.2 And, alcohol and drug use by young people has generally decreased in the past decade.2

Like adults, young people will use drugs for many reasons, these reasons might include to:

  • feel good
  • relax
  • get high
  • cope with stress, anxiety or feelings of depression
  • deal with emotional pain or a history of trauma
  • experiment
  • stay awake
  • fall asleep
  • increase confidence
  • lose weight
  • enhance social experiences – such as partying.3

While we know there can be negative consequences associated with alcohol and other drug use among young people, we also know simply telling a young person to stop using because it’s risky isn’t effective.4, 5

How young people use alcohol and other drugs

There are different ways young people use alcohol or drugs - we’ve listed some of the common ones below. But, there’s no typical use or progression, and not all drug use leads to problematic use or dependence.1

  • Experimental – alcohol or drugs are tried because a young person is curious, wants to fit in, or their friends are using.
  • Recreational – alcohol or drugs are used socially, often to enhance experiences like clubbing or at festivals.
  • Situational – alcohol or drugs are used to cope with the demands of a specific situation, such as using amphetamines to stay awake and study during exams.
  • Intensive – alcohol or drugs are used to get relief or cope in multiple situations and settings – use is heavier and more frequent.
  • Dependent – alcohol or drug use takes control. The brain is physically dependent on the substance, causing a preoccupation with drug-seeking/drug-taking behaviour often to the exclusion of everything else.6, 7

Why do young people use alcohol and other drugs?

As a parent or carer, it can be concerning to find drugs or drug paraphernalia belonging to your young person. And often a first reaction is to jump to conclusions, worry or confront them.

However, the reality is that while many young people will experiment with alcohol and other drugs, the majority won’t develop a dependence or experience any significant harm from their use.4, 5

For young people who do develop issues, it is more likely to be because of other factors, such as:

  • traumatic life events/childhood experiences
  • poor parental supervision
  • mental health issues
  • family violence or sexual abuse
  • lack of opportunities
  • disengagement from family, school and/or peers
  • easy access to AOD
  • poor academic performance
  • family history of AOD use problems.8

It’s important to note that even if a young person does experience these risk factors, it doesn’t mean they will necessarily develop an alcohol or drug dependence.

There’s also protective factors that can reduce a young person’s risk of developing an alcohol or other drug use problem. These include:

  • good connections to family, school and community
  • parental support and involvement
  • good coping and problem-solving skills
  • engagement in extracurricular activities
  • high self-esteem.8

Providing support for a young person using alcohol or other drugs

The best way to connect with a young person is to step back and have non-judgmental and curious conversations about their use of alcohol or other drugs.

These conversations can allow you to understand why they are using AOD and the role it plays in their lives.

In many cases. your young person may see their substance use as something that’s needed or beneficial to them. Identifying this can help you work out what’s going on, and then find the best ways to support them.

For example, if your young person uses cannabis to help them sleep, you can help support their sleep by suggesting they try reducing their screen time, develop bedtime routines or avoid coffee and energy drinks in the afternoon/evening.

If they’re using a substance to help with stress, then together you could explore other alternatives for stress relief.

Additional information on talking with young people about alcohol and other drugs.

Keeping young people safer

Supporting your young person and staying connected through open and honest conversations is important regardless of whether they choose to reduce or stop their AOD use.

While there are always risks involved in using alcohol or other drugs, you can help reduce these by talking to your young person about minimising harms while using. Sharing these tips are a good start:

  • make your own limits
  • eat before using
  • start slow and stay hydrated
  • learn as much as you can about the substance you are taking, including harm reduction tips. Our drug facts pages are a good place to start
  • remember you can never be entirely sure what’s in a drug
  • avoid mixing drugs, including alcohol
  • stay connected – never leave a friend on their own, and don’t head off with someone you don’t know
  • don’t drink or take drugs on your own
  • tell friends what you have taken in case you have a bad reaction
  • know what to do if you have a bad drug reaction or drug-related emergency
  • alcohol or drugs can make people less worried about danger – watch out for risks
  • heading home – taxi, rideshare, public transport, parent or a friend who has not taken anything
  • never drink or take drugs and drive, or travel with a mate that’s been drinking or taking drugs
  • if you are worried call 000 for an ambulance – they do not have to involve the police.

There’s more information available on our website for anyone wanting to understand more about:

If you’re worried about the amount of alcohol or drugs your young person is using, or the level of risk or harm they are being exposed to, it’s worth talking to a professional. We have some links to some excellent support services below.

Support services

headspace: 1800 650 890
Youth specific mental health service specialising in engaging young people with concerns relating to mental health, physical health (including sexual health), alcohol and other drugs or work and study support. headspace offers ‘face to face’ counselling as well as e-counselling.

National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline: 1800 250 015
24-hour phone line that offers telephone counselling, information, support and referral to treatment services for anyone seeking help for their own, or another person's, alcohol or drug use.

Positive Choices: Parenting advice and information to help you talk to your children about drugs and alcohol.

  1. NSW Ministry of Health. Substance Use and Young People Framework. North Sydney: NSW Government; 2014.
  2. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Alcohol, tobacco & other drugs in Australia 2022 [26.07.2022].
  3. Boys A, Marsden J, Strang J. Understanding reasons for drug use amongst young people: a functional perspective. Health Education Research [Internet]. 2001 [26.07.2022]; 16(4):[457-69 pp.].
  4. Pan W, Bai H. A multivariate approach to a meta-analytic review of the effectiveness of the D.A.R.E. program. Int J Environ Res Public Health [Internet]. 2009 [26.07.2022]; 6(1):[267-77 pp.].
  5. Steinberg L. A Social Neuroscience Perspective on Adolescent Risk-Taking. Dev Rev [Internet]. 2008 [26.07.2022]; 28(1):[78-106 pp.].
  6. Office of the Surgeon General. Chapter 2: The Neurobiology of Substance use, Misuse, and AddictionWashington (DC): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2016 [26.07.2022].
  7. Gavilian College. Recreational Drug Use and Addiction  [26.07.2022].
  8. Department of Health. Parental Substance Misuse can be a Child Protection issue. Government of Western Australia.

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