Alcohol And Other Drugs
Children and young people regularly contact Kids Helpline about drug or alcohol issues relating to themselves or someone close to them. During 2009, Kids Helpline received 884 requests for help about this issue. We received an additional 341 contacts from young people where drug or alcohol use was a problem but not necessarily their main concern.
In 2007, research found that approximately 13% of people aged 16-24 reported symptoms of a drug or alcohol use disorder (where using drugs or alcohol was causing problems for them) within the previous 12 months. Another study revealed that 5.5% of children and young people aged 12-19 used tobacco on a daily basis and just under 16% of children and young people in this age group used alcohol on a weekly basis.
The purpose of this hot topic is to assist parents and carers in understanding the issue of drugs and alcohol use and to provide tips on dealing with this issue regarding children and young people.
What is drug and alcohol use?
Kids Helpline defines drugs and alcohol use as either recreational use or dependence on, alcohol or other substances. This can include instances where the client is not necessarily addicted to either drugs or alcohol but their use may cause them difficulties.
What drugs and alcohol do young people commonly use?
The particular drug (including alcohol) that a child or young person chooses to use will depend upon both its expected effect and its availability. In addition, if children and young people believe they can use drugs or alcohol and avoid getting into trouble from parents/carers, their school or the law, they will be more likely to use it.
People often only regard drug abuse as the consumption of illicit drugs and alcohol, but many other types of substances can be involved. The types of things that children and young people commonly use include:
- illicit drugs (amphetamines, cannabis, etc)
- products containing alcohol (not just alcoholic beverages)
- tobacco products
- inhalants (paint, glue, nail polish)
- medications (pain killers, cough medicine, sedatives, stimulants)
- performance enhancers (steroids)
As this list shows, several of these are readily available and their sale and possession is not restricted by law - particularly medications and inhalants. Furthermore, the use of legal drugs and alcohol is much more common then the use of illicit drugs.
Why do children and young people use drugs or alcohol?
Adolescence is a time of risk-taking, experimentation and testing boundaries, and using drugs or alcohol is often part of this developmental process. However, children and young people also use drugs or alcohol for a number of other reasons, including:
- peer pressure (everyone else is using it so I may as well also)
- to feel pleasure
- to have more energy
- to relax
- to increase confidence in social situations
- to get to sleep
- to build muscle
- to cope with problems
Psychiatric disorders are also a big risk factor in the uptake of drug or alcohol use. Children and young people may use drugs or alcohol as a way of handling the psychological stress that a mental illness can cause. 
In the case of the misuse of medications, children and young people may take higher doses of medications currently prescribed to them by health professionals, if they feel their symptoms (particularly mental health or pain symptoms) are not being treated adequately by the medication.
What are the negative effects of using drugs or alcohol?
Drug and alcohol use has the potential to cause a wide range of both short and long term problems for children and young people, including physical, psychological and even legal issues.
There is a lot of research available about the negative health effects of drug or alcohol use on children and young people. Research shows that the greater the amount and the more often drugs or alcohol are used, the greater the potential for health problems. For example:
- overdoses of some drugs may lead to organ failure or even death
- misuse of prescription medications can cause problems when used in conjunction with other medications
- long-term use of many illicit drugs and some prescription drugs can lead to dependence on the drug
There are a number of psychological risks involved with drug and alcohol use, for example:
- Some illicit drugs have the potential to exacerbate existing mental health problems and even to trigger the onset of mental health problems such as depression and psychotic disorders
- Some drugs and alcohol can impair reasoning and judgement which in some studies, have been related to an increase in risky sexual and injecting behaviours
- Drugs such as inhalants and marijuana can lead to long-term learning difficulties
- Some studies have found that the use of one drug is a risk factor for using additional drugs (polysubstance use). This in turn is more likely to result in a higher number of problems resulting from drug use
What can parents/carers do to help?
As a parent/carer of children and young people, there are several things you can do to assist your child in making the right choices regarding drug and alcohol use. As well as the tips below, be sure to check out the links provided at the end of this page, for more information and advice regarding drug and alcohol use.
- Create a safe and supportive environment where you can discuss the issue of drugs and alcohol with your child or young person - this will encourage them to raise any questions or concerns they may have and to discuss strategies for overcoming peer pressure
- Avoid the temptation to exaggerate the dangers of drugs and alcohol - the reality of drug or alcohol use is enough to make a convincing point regarding why it should be avoided. By making unrealistic claims about drug or alcohol use you may run the risk of being discounted
- Educate yourself on the issue of drug and alcohol use - children and young people may want to know something specific and it's important to be able to give them this information or at least know where you can find answers
- Be on the look out for opportunities to educate children and young people on drug and alcohol use - for example, if a well-known athlete is caught using performance-enhancing drugs, talk about why they may have been tempted to use them as well as the potential adverse consequences for the athlete's health and career
- Talk about the dangers of legally available drugs and alcohol - inhalants found in spray cans and medications such as pain killers are just as dangerous as illicit drugs, even though they can be legally obtained by children and young people
- Be a role model to children and young people - in order to provide a good example to children and young people, model the kinds of healthy behaviours you would like them to adopt. This includes drinking alcohol in moderation or quitting smoking
- Help children and young people become more resilient - drug and alcohol use often increases during times of difficulty, as a way of dealing with life stresses. Therefore, it can help to teach your child/young person to effectively deal with difficult times. Check out the Being Resilient hot topic for more information on building resilience
- Set clear rules for children and young people so that they know what behaviour you are willing to accept - be sure to discuss the consequences of not adhering to your rules. Such rules may include:
- not bringing drugs/alcohol into the house or misusing any other substances
- not inviting any friends who use drugs over to the house
- not allowing drugs/alcohol to be brought to functions you are hosting. You can be held legally liable for injuries or damage that occurs as a result of underage drug/alcohol use
- Help build self esteem by encouraging young people to do their best at school/work and letting them know when they have done well at something - by helping build up their self esteem, you reduce the chance that they will use drugs or alcohol to try to feel better about themselves
- Be aware of what's going on in your child's life, so that you can see early warning signs, such as behaviour changes for no apparent reason - if you notice a change, try asking if they are experiencing any problems or why they seem to be acting differently. If you suspect there may be drug or alcohol use involved, raise this in a supportive manner
- Keep alcohol, medications and other harmful products that can be found around the home, out of the reach of children and young people - by making them less accessible, it will reduce the potential for engaging in drug or alcohol use
- If your child/young person is regularly using drugs or alcohol and is unable to stop by themselves, they may need to seek professional assistance - a number of services address drug and alcohol disorders across Australia. Contact your state's Parentline to find out what's available near you
Who can I contact for more information?
You may wish to contact your local parenting help service/s for further information.
Resources that may be of use
- Adolescent Substance Abuse Knowledge Base - http://www.adolescent-substance-abuse.com/
- DrugFree.org Drug Guide - http://www.drugfree.org/drug-guide
- Drug Guide For Parents - Comprehensive summary of drugs information - http://www.timetotalk.org/Downloads/ttt_drug_chart.pdf
- Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2008). 2007 National Survey of Mental Health & Wellbeing.
- Australian Institute of Health & Welfare. (2008). 2007 National Drug Strategy Household Survey. Canberra.
- Australian Psychological Society. (2008). Substance Use: A Position Statement Prepared for the Australian Psychological Society. Melbourne.
- Chiong, A., Bry, B., & Johnson, V.. (2010). Mediators between coping styles and substance use/intentions in urban, high school freshmen. Addictive Behaviors, 35(1), 57.
- Cornelius, J., Kirisci, L., Reynolds, M., Clark, D., Hayes, J., & Tarter, R.. (2010). PTSD contributes to teen and young adult cannabis use disorders. Addictive Behaviors, 35(2), 91.
- Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration. (2008). NSDUH Report: Inhalant Use & Major Depressive Episode Among Youths Aged 12 to 17: 2004 to 2006.
- Schwin, T., Schinke, S., & Trent, D.. (2010). Substance use among late adolescent urban youths: Mental health and gender influences. Addictive Behaviors, 35(1), 30.
- The Partnership for a Drug Free America. (2007). Drug Guide for Parents. Retrieved 22 March 2010. http://www.timetotalk.org/Downloads/ttt_drug_chart.pdf
- Floyd, L., & Latimer, W.. (2010). Adolescent Sexual Behaviors at Varying Levels of Substance Use Frequency. Journal of Child & Adolescent Substance Abuse, 19(1), 66.
- Dunn, M., Day, C., Bruno, R., Degenhardt, L., & Campbell, G.. (2010). Sexual and injecting risk behaviours among regular ecstasy users. Addictive Behaviors, 35(2), 157.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2009). Research Report Series: Inhalant Abuse.
- Chun, T., Spirito, A., Hernández, L., Fairlie, A., Sindelar-Manning, H., Eaton, C., & Lewander, W.. (2010). The Significance of Marijuana Use Among Alcohol-using Adolescent Emergency Department Patients. Academic Emergency Medicine, 17(1), 63.
Published: 1 April 2010