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Conversation ideas for talking to young people

Building safety with a young person

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You need to be a young person’s ally without condoning their alcohol and other drugs use. Help them decide the best way to be safe and minimise harm when they drink alcohol or take drugs. Here are some ideas for this type of conversation.

Print out the table below

Short question Conversation
What kind of alcohol or other drugs do you use?

I’m wondering or I’m curious about:

  • When you go out to have a good time with friends, what are you likely to  smoke, drink or use? How do you decide what you will take? How easy is it to get?
  • Have there been times where it’s hard to get or you can’t get it? What did you do? What do others you are with do?
  • Do you drink or use different things at different times? Have there been times you have mixed alcohol or drugs in one session?
What are the people, places, feelings or things that make you smoke, drink or use?

I’m really interested to learn about the times that would make you want to smoke, drink or use.


  • Do you have certain people you smoke, drink or use with?
  • How do you decide who? Would you say you plan to  smoke, drink or use or it just comes up, or something else?


  • What places would make you want to  smoke, drink or use or make it easier for you to?

Feelings and emotions

  • Have there been times you have drunk alcohol or used drugs to cope with tough stuff you are going through or have been through?
  • When you drink or use, what kind of feeling are you hoping for or what do you hope happens?
When has it become a problem or made you unsafe? Sometimes when people drink or use drugs they are taken advantage of or find themselves in unsafe situations. Can you relate to that?
  • I’m wondering if this has ever happened to you, or have you seen it happen to someone or heard about it?
  • I’m curious what your thoughts are on keeping safe.
  • Tell me about times when you may have felt unsafe or worried when drinking or using.
  • I am curious to know if you have ever felt worried but not able to speak up at the time.
  • Have you ever woken up, come down and regretted something that has happened?
  • On a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 being completely unsafe and 10 being completely safe, how safe do you generally feel when you drink or use? Tell me more about that.
  • On a scale of 0 to 10, what is the least safe you have ever felt when drinking or using? Why?
  • Has anyone ever talked with you before about your safety or things to think about or plan for?
What are the good and not so good things about it?

I’m really interested to know more about the things you like about smoking, drinking or using.

Good things

  • What are the good things about using?
  • What do you like about the effects?
  • What would you miss if you weren’t using?

Not so good things

  • What are the less good things about using?
  • What are the things you wouldn’t miss if you stopped using?
  • Do you have any concerns about your substance use?
  • Do these things worry you? What worries you the most?
  • If you could wake up tomorrow and things about your alcohol or drug use could be better, what would be different?
  • What would others notice was different? How would you feel inside?
  • How would you be spending your time?
Developing a safety plan with young people and finding out about their use

Things that may make them unsafe when using alcohol and other drugs:

  • how much they drink or use drugs
  • how often
  • the way they take drugs
  • who they take drugs with

What things make it risky for them:

  • how they purchase their alcohol and other drugs
  • where they use
  • who they use with

Things that can be done right now to make them feel safer or reduce the risks (harm minimisation):

Who are safe people they can call on?

Connecting young people to safe adults

Who can be a part of their safety plan to keep safe?

Who will be available to talk about alcohol and other drugs use, harm minimisation and keeping safe and healthy?

Who can check in with the young person or be there if they need them?

Supporting young people

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Young people may be frightened, worried about your role, and what may happen if they talk about their alcohol and other drugs use. Always be prepared that a young person may:

  • be defensive about their alcohol and other drugs use
  • not want to talk to you
  • be abrupt, aggressive or hostile towards you
  • be ashamed, embarrassed and worried.

Take time to get to know the young person and build a relationship with them so that you can learn about their strengths, talents and interests as well as the difficult things that are impacting on their lives.

When you talk with a young person, here are the things you should do:

  • Look for different ways to talk with them about their alcohol and other drugs use.
  • Try to talk with them often; one conversation is never enough.
  • Explore the best and safest place for them to talk with you.
  • Explore who should be there or not there during different conversations you have together about alcohol and other drugs.
  • Help them have conversations about their alcohol and other drugs use with their parents, carers and other important people.
  • Stay neutral if they have a relapse or struggle to make the changes that you hope for.

And these are things you should NOT do:

  • Do not lecture, shame, embarrass or blame them for problematic or risky alcohol and other drugs use.
  • Do not label them or disengage from them because of what they say or how they act towards you.
  • Never blame them for being abused or assaulted when they have been drinking or using.
  • Do not minimise or avoid the topic of sexual consent with a young person, their family or professionals if the young person is assaulted while under the influence. Responsibility for the assault needs to remain with the offender, not the young person. 

Assessing alcohol and other drugs use

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Working it out with YoDAA is an online tool to help young people look at their alcohol and drug use. It provides feedback and handy resources, such as the My use diary to monitor their alcohol and other drugs use. The young person may want to use the tool with you, with their parent, with a friend, or by themselves.

We use motivational interviewing with adults who have problematic alcohol and other drugs use. The questions and principles of this practice apply equally to young people. Some motivational interviewing questions you could ask the young person include:

Three Houses / Road Map

Ideal scenario

  • How would you like things to be in the future?
  • If things were different, what would you be doing?
  • If a miracle happened tonight, how would things be in the morning?
  • What do you think could happen over time?

Right now

  • How would you describe things at the moment?
  • Are you where you want to be right now?
  • What would you say is the first step you can make right now?

Support for change

  • What support do you need from (me, your parents, your carers, services)?
  • What things could get in your way?
  • How could we plan for that?
  • What things in your life would need to change to help you do this? Friends? Places you go?
  • How could we support you in making those changes?

Listening and understanding

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Having ‘curious’ conversations will encourage the young person to open up, giving you the opportunity to understand how they see things and how you can work together to reduce the risk of harm. Here are some discussion starters:

  • I’m really keen to understand what your alcohol and other drugs use means to you.
  • I want to understand how nicotine is value adding to your life.
  • I’m wondering how cannabis plays a part of your life.
  • I’m curious how you feel ‘ice’ may be impacting on you.
  • I’m wondering what other people may say about your use of alcohol.
  • I’m curious to know what worries you have about your drug use.

Stages of change

You need to understand the stages of change in alcohol and other drugs use, know what stage the young person is in, and help them move through the various stages. For ideas on how to work with young people during each of the stages, read these ideas from the YouthAOD Toolbox:


Watch: Treatment matching for the stages of change (Dovetail, 2019)

Treatment matching for the stages of change

Safety and progress

How safe from harm a young person is will depend on their willingness for change. Remember that encouraging harm minimisation is preferable to demanding they stop use completely. Your case planning will need to include building of resilience and reducing of risk factors.

Ways you may assess a young person’s progress:

  • Has the young person moved forward in their readiness to change?
  • Are they turning up to appointments?
  • Are they talking with someone about their alcohol and other drugs use?
  • Are they actively engaging in a counselling process?
  • Are they feeling happier?
  • Have they reduced their alcohol and other drugs use?
  • Are they using more safely?
  • Are there less risks associated with their use?
  • Has their circle of friends changed?
  • Have they made stronger connections with parents or other adults?
  • Are they following through on some, all or none of what they set out to do?

Setting goals with young people

Help young people set goals about their alcohol and other drugs use that they are committed to achieve.

These may include:

  • working towards stopping or reducing their substance use
  • reducing the harm associated with their substance use
  • longer-term behaviour change that reduces their vulnerability such as specialist alcohol and other drugs therapy.
  • improving their wellbeing and resilience
  • increasing the choices and options they have in their lives
  • increasing their own sense of happiness.

Ways young people may express their goals to you:

  • I want to cut down.
  • I need to stop wasting all my money on vaping and alcohol.
  • My life is going off track because of my alcohol and drug use. I need some help.
  • Every time I have a fight with (my parents, friends, at work) I just spin out of control.
  • My (friends, parents, carers) have said that I should go and see someone about my alcohol and drug use.
  • Unless I see someone, I’m going to get into big trouble with my (parents, girlfriend, boyfriend, teachers, school, co-worker, boss).
  • I want to keep using alcohol and drugs but I also want to make sure it doesn’t turn into a problem.
  • I want to be happier. I don’t want to feel like this.

Opportunities for healing and recovery

  • Look at more than a young person’s alcohol and other drugs use and the way they talk or behave. What are the issues that they are coping with by using?
  • Think about how you can be an ally to the young person.
  • Think about how you can help others see the young person for more than their alcohol and other drugs use and associated problems.
  • Think about the young person and their family and community—what needs attention in the young person’s life? How can you build resilience with the young person? (Read more about this in Risk assessment and Working with children)
  • What cultural supports can be used to harness safety and protection for the young person? Read more in Working with CALD communities and Working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People sections.
  • Is alcohol and other drugs being used to survive, cope or resist abuse, neglect or violence in the young person’s life?
  • How will case planning address this alongside their alcohol and other drugs use?
  • Are a range of relevant services involved to meet the child’s different needs?
  • What traditional and cultural methods of healing do you need to consider alongside mainstream alcohol and other drugs services for a young person?

Documenting problematic alcohol and other drugs use

Don't write Do write
(Young person’s name) continues their risk-taking behaviours of drinking alcohol. (Young person’s name) continues to cope with their trauma by drinking alcohol.
(Young person’s name) continues to put themselves at risk by drinking. When they are drinking, (young person’s name) is not always able to navigate their own safety. There have been times older men have taken advantage of (young person’s name) when they have been drunk.
(Young person’s name) disregards their safety and, despite being told not to drink or use, they continue to do so. (Young person’s name) has been provided with information from the following sources ... about their alcohol or drug use. Right now (young person’s name) does not believe their drinking is a problem in their life. (Young person’s name) and I came up with a plan of how they may be safe when they choose to drink or use.

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