Taking risks is a natural part of growing up; however, using alcohol and drugs at a young age – and before the brain has fully developed – can increase a young person’s likelihood of addiction in the future.
Alcohol and drugs are mood-changing substances. They can make a young person feel happy, energetic, alert, relaxed, high and uninhibited, or low, panicky, stressed, depressed, even suicidal.
Drug and alcohol misuse can affect a young person’s ability to concentrate, their educational performance, their mood and their physical and emotional health.
It can also be fatal: young people have died taking drugs for the first time and a high percentage of accidental deaths involve alcohol. Young people who drink are also more likely to be involved in or victims of violent crime.
Alcohol is widely available and, even if your child is under the legal age to drink alcohol in pubs, they will probably encounter it at parties or when socialising with friends.
Young people witness drinking everywhere – on television, among older friends and at home – so it’s no wonder they think it’s normal, adult behaviour. Fortunately, the first really bad hangover will discourage many young people from drinking heavily again in the future.
Young people who drink are more likely to use other drugs, adding to the risks.
Drugs are potentially even more dangerous because it is impossible for a young person to know exactly what they are taking or how they might react to a particular drug.
Illegal drugs are put into three classifications depending on the harm their misuse causes to the user or society.
Since 2016, it has also been illegal to import or supply psychoactive substances – once known as ‘legal highs’ – but not to use them.
Some drugs are more addictive than others, e.g. heroin, while others are more likely to have dangerous immediate effects, e.g. ecstasy and crack cocaine. Drugs like cannabis are known to have harmful long-term psychiatric effects on some users.
No-one can ever be sure that any powder, pill or liquid contains what they are told it does. There have been many incidents of people thinking they are taking ecstasy when it was in fact PMA (which can kill at lower doses).
There is a danger of young people mixing drugs, adding to the risks.
FRANK provides detailed information about all drugs, including the effects, the risks and the law.
Dan 24/7 has compiled an A-Z of drugs.
Why do young people use drugs and alcohol?
It’s natural for young people to try out new things, especially activities that they perceive as ‘grown up’. Drinking or taking drugs with friends can seem like a lot of fun.
Other reasons for drinking and taking drugs include:
- plain curiosity – just wondering how it feels to be drunk or high
- role models – they see adults using alcohol in social situations, so can’t see what’s wrong with it
- peer pressure – it can be hard to say ‘no’ when everyone else is doing something
- enjoyment – alcohol and drugs actually make the young person feel good at the time.
Drink Aware explains why young people drink alcohol.
How you can help
There are many ways you can help:
- Talk about drugs and alcohol openly.
- Have clear boundaries and rules.
- Encourage your child to be confident in their choices so they are better able to say ‘no’.
- Be a positive role model. Set a good example with your own behaviour.
- Encourage your child to take up activities which result in ‘natural highs’ like sport, drama, music, etc.
Occasionally, there is an underlying physical, emotional or mental health reason for a young person to abuse alcohol and drugs. If you are worried about a young person’s drinking or drug use, it’s important to seek support from your GP who can refer them to specialist support and services.