A guide to drug and alcohol abuse for children

This Page was last reviewed and changed on June 7th, 2022

Verified by Dr. Mateen Durrani
MBBS; DPM(lre); MSc(Lon); BSPsych(Lon)

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Content Overview

Young people have the world at their feet, yet it is not always easy for them to make accurate decisions. With the media publishing countless drug and alcohol-related news articles it can be confusing for children and parents to know how to approach addiction. In effect, parents sometimes protect their children from substances rather than have honest conversations around addiction, which sometimes leads to worse consequences.

This page will explain the long and short-term effects of addiction, the signs to look out for and who to turn to for help for those aged 11-18.

The dangers of drugs and alcohol

If a young person takes drugs or drinks alcohol, it does not mean they will necessarily develop an addiction. Many people who try drugs or alcohol experience minor side-effects with no impact on their progress or school results. However, every individual responds differently, and some are more prone to addiction than others. Some children that try these substances could become dependent on them or rely on them for confidence, which can develop into an alcohol addiction or drug addiction.

There is also a risk that taking drugs or alcohol harm a child’s system, especially with drugs such as inhalants, which cause damage to vital organs if accidentally ingested.

Common misconceptions around drugs

There are numerous rumours used to market drugs and make them more appealing. Here are some common misconceptions that many young people believe:

  • Only specific types of cannabis are bad for you – skunk and spice. All other forms are healthy
  • Drugs are safe if you take them in small doses
  • Drugs are not dangerous if you leave a few days between using
  • Because cannabis (weed) contains healing properties, it can do no harm

These rumours seem realistic because they distort the truth. For example, some prescription medications are derived from the cannabis plant and are used to treat patients with epilepsy, extreme nausea and MS. However, these products are different to illegal cannabis, as they do not contain the high-inducing chemical THC, which can make the product addictive. They are also only prescribed to patients as a last resort.

These myths around drugs and alcohol convince people they are not dangerous. So, it’s essential to have these conversations with your children to give them a clear idea of what is safe. Initiating the conversation with your children also takes away any fear that they will be judged if asking for help.

Short-term risks of abusing alcohol and drugs

  • Dehydration and severe headaches
  • Accidents due to slower reactions and impaired coordination
  • Accidents due to hallucinations
  • Increased chance of hangovers and developing alcohol dependence
  • Damage to vital organs
  • Increased likelihood of choking due to gag reflex being impaired
  • Risk of alcohol poisoning. This interferes with breathing and heart rate, can put the person in a coma and can cause death

Long-term risks of misusing drugs and alcohol

Putting substances into the body results in inhibitions lowering. This usually boosts a person’s confidence and makes them do things out of character. Although this can seem fun, it can result in unplanned pregnancies, a loss of interpersonal skills leading to unemployment and an increased likelihood of mental health issues, such as depression.

Substances abused over time can weaken the immune system and increase the likelihood of addiction. Addiction causes a substance or behaviour to take priority over anything else, which can damage relationships and potentially tarnish someone’s chance of a successful career.

If a person’s addiction is left untreated for a long time, it could reach a point where they become oblivious to the damage they cause. This could mean resorting to crime to fund the substance, leading to a criminal record or homelessness. Long-term abuse of alcohol can also increase blood pressure and cholesterol, inducing heart attacks and other diseases.

How to recognise addiction in young people

Someone with a substance addiction will not always exhibit clear signs. Teenagers often experience mood swings, lose interest in personal hygiene and become isolated or secretive, so it can be challenging to recognise addiction in young people.

Common signs of substance abuse include:

When children go through puberty, their bodies also go through physical and emotional changes. They may therefore assume that any side-effects from drugs and alcohol are natural hormonal changes, rather than the effects of addiction. If a young person is regularly drinking with friends or is in a group that abuses drugs and does not realise the potential dangers, they may not be aware that they have a dependence on drugs or alcohol.

Someone with an addiction will go to any length to satisfy their craving. So, if you notice that a young person becomes unnecessarily angry that they cannot access alcohol, they lie about their drug or alcohol intake or they experience withdrawal symptoms, they may be suffering from addiction.

Why young people develop addiction

How likely someone is to develop an addiction depends entirely on the individual.

Here are some factors that will affect this:

Family history

Those born into families with addictions are more likely to develop an addiction themselves.

Those that try drugs and alcohol from a young age

Scientific evidence suggests that the younger someone is when they take a substance, the more likely they are to develop an addiction.

Lack of connection

Those that are born into difficult family situations, don’t make friends or lack a bond with siblings are more likely to develop connections with the feeling of euphoria than those with strong relationships.

Mental health disorders

Those with mental health disorders, such as ADHD or depression, have a higher chance of developing an addiction.

Highly addictive substances

Some drugs are more addictive than others. Abusing substances with a higher addictive rate will increase the chances of developing an addiction.

Looking for help

Addiction can be a lonely journey that impacts relationships and opportunities, but it is treatable. It’s therefore crucial to seek help for anyone who has developed an addiction.

We offer treatment programmes to anyone aged 16 and over, so if you would like to bring your child in to visit a rehabilitation centre** or talk us – or if you are worried about your wellbeing and want to ask us any questions about the rehabilitation process – then you can call and speak to our knowledgeable staff or use our live chat service. All conversations are kept completely confidential.

If you are under 16 or worried about someone who is, here is a list of charities you can call for assistance.

**During the Covid-19 pandemic, visits to the centres have been put on hold to prevent the risk of the virus spreading into our clinics. If you would like more insight into a centre, you can call our friendly team for advice and look at our brochures for more details.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you test your child for drugs at home?
Home test kits are available to buy online; however, testing your child for drugs comes across as untrusting. It’s best to observe their behaviour for signs of substance abuse and talk to them openly if you suspect anything.
How do you talk to your child about drugs and alcohol?
Dedicate time to broach the subject openly and ask them as many questions as you can think of, including them in the conversation rather than turning it into a lecture.
How can you tell if your child is on drugs?
If your child experiences hallucinations, becomes distant and withdrawn, loses interest in hobbies, socialising or personal hygiene, lies about their whereabouts or experiences withdrawal symptoms, they may be abusing drugs.
How do you protect your child from drugs?
A child will only be protected from drugs if they are educated on the risks. Explain to them the possible side-effects of drugs and the feasibility of becoming addicted.
How should you confront your child when you find drugs?
Calmly talk to them about it by asking questions and having an open conversation. If you are angry or upset, ensure you wind down before bringing up the subject, as lecturing a child about drugs will reduce the likelihood of them listening to your advice.
How do you explain drug addiction to a child?
Understanding the consequences of addiction is just as crucial to those under 18 as it is for adults. Children are receptive to honesty, so ask them questions about how much they know about drugs and addiction and explain the possibility of them experiencing the risks listed in this page.
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