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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Mental Health and Growing Up Factsheet

Alcohol and drugs - what parents need to know: information for parents, carers and anyone who works with young people

alcohol and depression

About this leaflet

This is one in a series of leaflets for parents, teachers and young people entitled Mental Health and Growing Up. This leaflet offers practical advice for parents and teachers who are worried that a young person is misusing drugs or alcohol.

Alcohol and drugs

  What are the different types of drugs which cause problems?

Why do I need to know about young person using drugs or alcohol?

Many young people smoke, drink alcohol and may try drugs. It is important you are aware of this and do not ignore it as a time when they are just having fun or experimenting. It doesn’t take much for the young people to soon lose control and to need help to recover from this problem.
How common is it?

By the age of 16, up to half of young people have tried an illegal drug. Young people are trying drugs earlier and more are drinking alcohol.

Young people are being hospitalised more and more frequently, and at a younger age, because of alcohol-related liver disease.


The most commonly used, readily available and strongly addictive drugs are tobacco and alcohol. There are numerous others that can be addictive.


Alcohol and cannabis are sometimes seen as ‘gateway’ drugs that lead to the world of other drugs like cocaine and heroin.

Drugs are also classed as ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’. The obviously illegal drugs include cannabis (hash), speed (amphetamines), ecstasy (E), cocaine and heroin. Using ‘legal’ drugs (like cigarettes, alcohol, petrol, glue) does not mean they are safe or allowed to be misused. It just means they may be bought or sold for specific purposes and are limited to use by specific age groups.


There are clear laws regarding alcohol and young people. For more detailed information on various drugs, their side-effects and the law, see ‘Further Information’ at the end of the factsheet.


Why do young people use drugs and alcohol?

  When does it become an addiction or a problem?

Young people may try or use drugs or alcohol for various reasons. They may do it for fun, because they are curious, or to be like their friends. Some are experimenting with the feeling of intoxication. Sometimes they use it to cope with difficult situations or feelings of worry and low mood. A young person is more likely to try or use drugs or alcohol if they hang out or stay with friends or family who use them.


What can be the problems related to using drugs or alcohol?

Drugs and alcohol can have different effects on different people. In young people especially the effects can be unpredictable and potentially dangerous. Even medications for sleep or painkillers can be addictive and harmful if not used the way they are prescribed by a doctor.


Drugs and alcohol can damage health. Sharing needles or equipment can cause serious infections, such as HIV and hepatitis. Accidents, arguments and fights are more likely after drinking and drug use. Young people are more likely to engage in unprotected sex when using drugs.


Using drugs can lead to serious mental illnesses such as psychosis and depression.



It is very difficult to know when exactly using drugs or alcohol is more than just ‘usual’.


Addiction becomes more obvious when the young person spends most of their time thinking about, looking for or using drugs. Drugs or alcohol then become the focus of the young person’s life. They ignore their usual work, such as not doing their schoolwork, or stop doing their usual hobbies/sports such as dancing or football.


How do I know if there is a problem or addiction?

Occasional use can be very difficult to detect. If the young person is using on a regular basis, their behaviour often changes. Look for signs such as:

  • unexplained moodiness
  • behaviour that is ‘out of character'
  • loss of interest in school or friends
  • unexplained loss of clothes or money
  • unusual smells and items like silver foil, needle covers.

Remember, the above changes can also mean other problems rather than using drugs.

What do I do if I'm worried?

  Where can I get help?

If you suspect young person is using drugs, remember some general rules.

  • Pay attention to what the child is doing, including schoolwork, friends and leisure time.
  • Learn about the effects of alcohol and drugs (see websites listed below).
  • Listen to what the child says about alcohol and drugs, and talk about it with them.
  • Encourage the young person to be informed and responsible about drugs and alcohol.
  • Talk to other parents, friends or teachers about drugs - the facts and your fears and SEEK HELP.

If someone in the family or close friend is using drugs or alcohol, it is important that they seek help too. It may be hard to expect the young person to give up, especially if a parent is using it too.


My child is abusing drugs. What do I do?

  • If your child is using drugs or alcohol, seek help.
  • Do stay calm and make sure of facts.
  • Don't give up on them, get into long debates or arguments when they are drunk, stoned or high.
  • Don’t be angry or blame them –they need your help and trust to make journey of recovery.

You can talk in confidence to a professional like your GP or practice nurse, a local drug project or your local child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS) (see our factsheet on Who’s Who in CAMHS). They can refer your child to relevant services, and will be able to offer you advice and support.


You may also be able to seek help through a school nurse, teacher or social worker. You can find this information from your local area telephone book or council website, or ask for the address from your health centre.


You may also look at the websites listed below. Most offer telephone advice and email contact.


Michelle, mum talks about her son’s drug use

John was always the boisterous one with a short fuse. So unlike his brother Jack and sister Lucy. He was good with doing things like making and fixing stuff, but not very good in English or other subjects. I thought he was more like his dad, Jake.


Jake was away most of time working as a truck driver. It was like being a single parent with three kids. I looked after the home, cooked, fed and cleaned. But maybe I never spent much time with the kids. They were all good so I never really thought about it. Not until the day Jack came and told us, about John missing school and having bruises all over. I don’t know how I missed it … there were some signs but I had just thought it was him being a teenager. John’s clothes were smelly, he used to come home really late at weekends and he did not look healthy.


He did not even eat much except some coffee in morning. It was like walking on fire when we first asked John ... I thought John’s life was over. I cried, felt guilty. But Jake is strong now that he’s around more.


Peter the drug counsellor told us all about drugs, how we could help. Somehow I felt there was a ray of hope. It has been long rocky road but I feel stronger. John is enjoying his vocational courses. We make sure we spend time as family, go out even though we can’t afford much.


I wish I had known about these things before ... maybe a parents’ evening in school.


Further info  


Addaction - Specialist drug and alcohol treatment charity.

Alcohol Concern - National agency on alcohol misuse campaigning for effective alcohol policy and improved services for people whose lives are affected by alcohol-related problems.

Drink Sense - Provides counselling, information and support for people with alcohol- related problems, their carers and families, also has information for young people under the age of 25.


NHS Choices - Website with health information.


NHS Direct - Provide help and advice on any aspect of drug and alcohol use. Tel. 0845 4647.


NHS Smoking Helpline: Smoke free - Smokefree line: 0800 022 4 332.


Patient UK - Information on alcohol and drug misuse and s links to various useful books and websites.


Talk to Frank - Free confidential drugs information and advice line. Tel. 0800 776600.



Revised by the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Child and Family Public Engagement Editorial Board (CAFPEB).

With grateful thanks to Dr Virginia Davies, Dr Vasu Balaguru, and Thomas Kennedy..


This resource reflects the best possible evidence at the time of writing.

© Royal College of Psychiatrists March 2017

Due for review March 2020



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