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. Some parents start to worry that their child might be drinking alcohol or using other drugs, and this is causing their behaviour to change.

This is a tricky situation, because many of the behaviours that can worry parents (mood swings, desire for privacy, less involvement with the family) are also pretty typical for teenagers. While some media and pop culture can make it seem like most young people are using alcohol and other drugs, this isn’t really the case.

Alcohol consumption, tobacco smoking, and other drug use have been declining in young people 12-17 years old.1

However, 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.

What if I think my child is using drugs or drinking?

Unless someone tells you, it is very difficult to know if a person is using drugs. Drugs affect everyone differently, and many behaviours that people worry are due to drug use can also be because of a range of personal, social, or school-related reasons.

Even young people who do experiment with alcohol and other drugs at some point are unlikely to experience a dependence on them. The main concern with young people using alcohol or other drugs is that it might have a negative impact on the critical brain development that occurs during adolescence.

The best thing to do is have a conversation. If you haven’t talked with your child about alcohol or drugs before, it’s never too late to start.

If you want to raise specific behaviours or situations that have been an issue, taking steps like planning a good time to talk and using non-judgemental language can help keep the conversation on track.

Sometimes when parents are worried their child might be using substances, they consider searching their room for evidence. Unfortunately, this could make things worse by breaking down the trust between parent and child and creating feelings of suspicion and anger. It’s usually better to talk to them instead.

Girls on bench looking at their phones

Talking to teachers

If your child is experiencing behavioural issues or struggling in school, you could also talk to their teachers at school and ask how they’ve been doing.

Decreasing academic performance, behaviour issues, absences and other problems may signify your child is experiencing difficulties which, even if unrelated to drug use, may still need your attention.

Their teachers might have some insight into their social life at school and other issues that might be affecting their behaviour and academic success.

Home drug testing kits

Drug testing your child at home can be risky. For example, if your child denies taking drugs, your relationship can be damaged by mistrust and suspicion. They could be very 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. The reliability and quality of these testing kits are still limited and using them could produce unintended consequences.

For example, often they only detect use of common illegal drugs like cannabis and amphetamines, and not new psychoactive substances like synthetic cannabis or 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. And some researcher’s opinion is that synthetic cannabis, for example, may be riskier to use than “regular” botanical cannabis.2

At best, a positive drug test – even when accurate - only indicates drug use has occurred in the past. It cannot tell how often a person uses a drug, or whether that person is experiencing a dependence. And there is always a chance of a mistaken result.

If you do 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?

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  1. Guerin N, White V. ASSAD 2017 Statistics & trends: Australian secondary students' use of tobacco, alcohol, over-the-counter drugs, and illicit substances. Melbourne: Cancer Council Victoria; 2018.
  2. Palamar J, Barratt M. Synthetic cannabinoids: undesirable alternatives to natural marijuana. The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse. 2016;42(4):371-3.