This mixed method article identifies how risk factors differ across the age range serviced by Australian youth alcohol and other drug (AOD) agencies. It is intended to inform the development of interventions targeting early adolescents aged 13-15 years. Focusing on survey variables concerning substance choice and identified risk factors for problematic AOD, we compare the characteristics of early adolescents against older youth aged 16-19 and 20-24 years within a sample of regular substance users (N = 163). Qualitative information from interviews with an additional group of regular substance users aged 13-15 is used to interpret survey findings (N = 20). Participants in both studies reported substance use at least monthly during the previous 6 months, were directly or indirectly connected with an AOD or welfare service and were interviewed in Victoria, Australia. Early adolescents in the survey were more likely than older participants to use alcohol and cannabis and less likely to use heroin as primary or secondary drugs of choice. They were less likely to be homeless, have been incarcerated, reported depression or being substance affected regularly during their last year of school. They were more likely to be connected with a network of close friends, but were also more likely to have recently committed property crime and begged. Similarly, high proportions across all three age groups reported school suspension and expulsion, being charged with a crime, selling drugs, attempting suicide and self-harm. In interviews, early adolescents argued that they wanted sustained relationships with reliable adults who would help them with issues of concern to them such as sadness, boredom, family conflict, housing insecurity and difficulty engaging in education or other day programmes, rather than giving primary attention to their AOD use. The study provides evidence for a targeted approach to working with early adolescents and the need for further research in this area.