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Talking with young people

When talking to a young person about their problematic alcohol or other drug use, remember to be strengths-based and safety-oriented. It is important to be curious, the young person is the expert in their life, be open to listening and understanding.

Young people are vulnerable and at risk of harm. Avoid labels, be aware of stigmatising language, and do not blame and shame.

Dovetail have resources that include a list of acronyms and slang terms for drugs

Further reading

Dovetail have resources that include a list of acronyms and slang terms for drugs

Tips for talking to a young person about using drugs for the first time

In this clip, Youth Drugs and Alcohol Advice (YoDAA) talks about how to plan a conversation when you talk to a young person for the first time about their drug use.

Tips for talking to a young person about using drugs for the first time.

Keeping safe

Talk with young people about what is risky about the way they drink or use, and how they can keep safe or control their use. Risks to talk about include:

  • overdosing
  • sharing needles
  • drinking or using alone
  • blackouts
  • becoming violent or being a victim of violence
  • unsafe sex
  • polydrug use (using more than one type of drug)
  • accidents or injuries
  • driving while intoxicated
  • suicide and self-harm
  • misuse of prescribed medication.

Motivating change

Simply telling a young person to stop using can have little effect and may even damage the relationship you have with them. Try to discuss changing their harmful behaviour and support them in doing so. For change to occur:

  • The young person needs to be motivated to change their alcohol and other drugs use and behaviour—‘I want to stop the harm drinking is causing me.’
  • The young person needs to have knowledge and understanding of what constitutes risky behaviour in relation to their alcohol and other drugs  use—‘I know that binge drinking is harming my brain development.’
  • The young person needs to be enabled with the opportunity, tools and resources to change their behaviour—‘I have a stable place to stay and I have the tools and support I need' (YouthAOD Toolbox–Facilitating Behaviour Change).

Being an ally

Conversations with young people need to strike a balance. Be clear about the harms of alcohol and other drugs  use and why you would like to see them stop using, while also acknowledging how hard this might be for them. Talk to them about ways to make their current use safer in the short term. Some ideas for this conversation include:

  • 'It’s safest if you don’t drink or use drugs, but I recognise this is a part of your life right now. If you’re going to drink or use drugs, let’s make sure you have the information you need to keep safe.'
  • 'I’m always here to talk to you about your use or the things that might be troubling you. I’m not going to judge you. In fact, I’m proud of you for being able to open up and talk to me.'
  • 'You told me that you use alcohol or drugs to numb the pain. I can understand that, but I worry that you might get hurt when you’re using. Let’s think about ways you can stay safe when you use alcohol or drugs. Later on we might talk about some other things you could do to help with the pain.'

Minimising harm

Encourage the young person never to use drugs alone, and to use when they are with safe people. Drugs and alcohol can cause blackouts, making a person vulnerable to accidents, assaults, and overdoses.

Ask if there is someone they can call for help if they get into trouble, and add their name to the safety plan. The Strong bonds website has some great tips on talking with young people about their lives, where they live, relationships and supports.

What if a young person doesn't want to change their drug use?

Watch the following short clip by Youth Drugs and Alcohol Advice (YoDAA) on why an environment that supports change is just as powerful as someone wanting change.

What if a young person I care for doesn't want to change their drug use?

Supporting withdrawal, treatment and recovery

Making the decision to decrease or stop using is a big step for young people. Recognise and celebrate their courage by acknowledging and supporting them in this journey. Talk with the young person about what they need from you, from their family and from others.

Remember that withdrawal is a physical, psychological and emotional process. You may need to explain what to expect—how their body might respond and why, and what thoughts and feelings they might experience. Remind them that any negative effects will pass.

Young people need special care and support during withdrawal. Help connect them to the right alcohol and other drugs services and ensure your contact with them is frequent, encouraging, compassionate and supportive.

If they lapse during the recovery process, they will need your support even more. You need to keep them motivated and hopeful. There is no one size fits all approach when it comes to treatment for young people, and the underlying factors leading to their use needs to be addressed at the same time.

Practice prompt

If you have concerns about a young person’s wellbeing when they are withdrawing from alcohool and other drug use, seek professional medical advice. All hospital emergency departments have a Drug and Alcohol Brief Intervention team (DABIT) that can assist. Ensure this referral is requested if a young person is attending an emergency department. See more about DABIT in this document.

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