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How parents use drugs

Learning more about how a parent uses drugs helps practitioners understand how the child is vulnerable to harm from their parent's problematic substance use. A parent may tell you they smoke or inject heroin; however, practitioners need to really understand how a child sees and experiences this.

Method of drug use: The child’s experience:
Smoking—Parents who smoke drugs inhale the smoke or fumes through a cigarette or pipe, or inhale fumes from a substance that is heated on aluminium foil (such as heroin).

Is the child watching their parent prepare and smoke drugs?

What do they smell and breathe in? 

Is the child sleeping or playing in the same room where parents are smoking?

Snorting—Parents who snort drugs chop the drug into a fine powder first. They may use a razor blade to cut the drug on a mirror or other hard surface. The powder is then divided into ‘lines’ and snorted using rolled-up paper or a straw.

Are razor blades left in easy reach of the child?

 Are there drugs or drug residue left on tables and household items?

Injecting—Parents who inject drugs dissolve the drug in water or heat it in a ‘cooker’ so it is ready to inject. A cooker could be a spoon, a bottle cap or some tin foil. Needles may be reused and shared with others. People inject into veins or just under the skin.

To hide needle marks, they may inject between toes or in the groin area. Sometimes people are not able inject themselves and get others to inject them.

Is a child breathing in the fumes when a parent cooks drugs?

Are they seeing their parent heating or injecting drugs?

Are needles and cookers left within reach of the child or for the child to pick up, stand on or crawl on?

Inhaling—People who use inhalants breathe them in through the mouth (huffing) or through the nose in various ways, such as:

  • sniffing or snorting fumes from a container or dispenser, such as a glue bottle or a marker pen
  • spraying aerosols, such as computer cleaning dusters, directly into the nose or mouth
  • ‘huffing’ from a chemical-soaked rag in the mouth
  • sniffing or inhaling fumes from chemicals sprayed or put inside a plastic or paper bag (‘bagging’)
  • inhaling from balloons filled with nitrous oxide (often called laughing gas).

Although the high that inhalants produce usually lasts just a few minutes, people often try to make it last by inhaling continuously over several hours.

Are children breathing in the fumes or copying their parents by huffing with everyday household products?

Are aerosol cans, glue bottles or marker pens left within reach of the child?

Manufacturing—Meth labs can be created in a house, garage or outdoors area, or created in smaller area using an esky or trunk.

No matter where the lab is set up, it is dangerous. Explosions and fires are common. People can get painful chemical burns if there is an explosion, or blisters on their lungs if they inhale the fumes while meth is cooking.

Once cooking is done, there is a lot of toxic waste left over. Some of the odours related to a meth lab have been described as smelling like lighter fluid, ether, ammonia, auto parts cleaner and rotten eggs.

Is a child living, sleeping or playing near a meth lab that could explode?

Are they living, sleeping or playing near harmful fumes?

Do they have access to the dangerous chemicals used in meth labs?

What you need to talk about

Practitioners need to have conversations with parents about the way they use drugs. The following points provide some example questions:

Types of drugs

  • What drugs do you usually use? How often do you use each of those substances?
  • How do you take the different drugs you use?
  • What implements or items do you need to use them like that?

How and where they use

  • Where do you usually take drugs? Who is around you?
  • Where were you the last time you took drugs? Where were the children?
  • When you take them like that, if your child was to walk in, what would they see or smell?
  • Are there usually strong smells or fumes in the home?

Storage of alcohol and drugs

  • Where do you store your drugs and paraphernalia—at home, in the car, in your bag, or somewhere else?
  • What happens after you have taken drugs—would there be any bits left over on the table or elsewhere?
  • Would there ever be needles, razor blades, cooking equipment or anything like that left out? 
  • How do you ensure that the children can't access the drugs or equipment?
  • When you have finished with needles, spoons or cookers, how do you get rid of them or where do you throw them out?

Dangers of meth labs

  • Do you know the dangers for children being around a meth lab or other dangerous fumes from drug use?

Talk to the parent about any observations you have of their appearance or home that may indicate drug use to further understand what and how they use. For example, physical signs such as track marks or skin sores that may be from drug use, or needles or mirrors with razor blades observed in the home.


Children living, sleeping or playing near a meth lab are at extremely high risk of poisoning, accidental deaths and burns due to home-based methamphetamine lab fires and explosions. They are also exposed to the highly psychoactive (mind-altering) stimulants and the toxic chemicals that come from methamphetamine production.

Further reading

Read more about the ways people take drugs.

See images of various drug paraphernalia used to sell or take drugs.

Read about the signs and symptoms for different drug types.

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