Two young people standing together and looking up at something.

Drugs and alcohol

It’s normal for teenagers and young adults to experiment, test boundaries and take some risks. Drinking alcohol and trying drugs is one of the ways in which some young people do this. It is common for teenagers to drink alcohol at some point. A smaller number of young people will try illegal drugs, or smoke cigarettes or e-cigarettes (often called ‘vaping’).

A teenager or young adult might drink alcohol or take drugs for different reasons. They might do it because:

  • it makes them feel good in the moment
  • it’s a way of having fun or socialising
  • they are curious and want to test boundaries or try new things
  • they want to fit in with a social group or feel pressure to do it
  • it makes them feel more confident
  • they want to distract from difficult thoughts or feelings
Three young people sitting together in a park.

As a parent or carer, it’s important to talk to your child or young person about drugs and alcohol. By doing this, you can help them to understand the risks and support them to make safe and healthy choices. In this guide, you’ll find lots of tips to help you. You’ll also find information about where you can get help if you’re worried about your child’s alcohol or drug use.

Understanding the law and the risks

Some drugs, such as alcohol and nicotine, are legal for people who are 18 or older. Some drugs, such as cannabis and cocaine, are illegal for anyone of any age to have or use. You can find out more about the law around drugs and alcohol on the Government’s website:

When someone takes drugs, there is always risk involved. Using alcohol or drugs affects our judgement and decision-making. This can increase the risk of getting into dangerous situations. There is also always a risk of poisoning, having a bad reaction, or drinking or taking too much.

You can find more information about the risks around drinking alcohol, smoking, vaping and taking illegal drugs on the Frank website. Frank also has advice about staying safe from drink spiking.

Go to the Frank website

How can drugs and alcohol affect mental health?

A young Black woman in a wheelchair and a young Black man on a bench, both staring at the camera looking serious.

Drugs and alcohol can have different effects on a young person’s mental health. In the short-term, a young person’s mood might change while they’re drinking or taking drugs. They may feel happy, excited or relaxed. Or they may feel low, worried or on-edge. Afterwards, they might feel tired, anxious or a bit spaced-out.

Over the longer-term, misusing drugs or alcohol can lead to serious mental health issues. Teenagers and young adults may be at greater risk of this because their brains are still developing. For example, some research shows that young people who use cannabis may be at greater risk of developing psychosis. You can find more information about the mental health risks associated with specific drugs on the Frank website.

Drinking or taking drugs can affect a young person’s mental health in different ways:

  • It can make existing mental health issues feel worse.

    This is because our emotions often feel more intense when we’re drinking or taking drugs. We can also feel less able to cope in the hours or days afterwards. This can make issues like anxiety or depression harder to manage.

  • If they're struggling, they may start to use drugs or alcohol to cope with difficult feelings.

    Drinking or taking drugs can be a way of numbing or distracting from difficult feelings or thoughts. But while it might sometimes feel like this brings short-term relief, it can make the problem worse over the long-term.

  • Alcohol and drugs may affect them differently if they’re taking medication for their mental health.

    Taking drugs with certain medications comes with a risk of serious side effects. Encourage your young person to talk to the GP about this when their medication is prescribed, so they understand the risks. If you’re worried about this, you can speak to the GP yourself. You can also find more information on our medication pages.

How can I talk to my child about alcohol and drugs?

Try to normalise talking about drugs and alcohol in your family. This will help your children to know that they can come to you for information and support when they need it. Treat conversations as an ongoing dialogue, rather than a one-off ‘big chat’.

If your family's views around alcohol or drugs are connected to your faith or culture, you may want to include this in your discussions.

Make it clear that it’s okay for them to be curious and to have questions. Let them know you’re happy to answer their questions. You can always tell them you’ll find out the answer if they ask something you don’t know.

Show interest in their experience. Is alcohol talked about at school, or in their friendship group? What have they heard about alcohol and drugs? Do they know people who drink, or someone who’s tried drugs? What do they think about this? How does it make them feel?

Explain the risks to your child clearly. This is important for keeping them safe. It also helps them understand why you’re worried about them drinking or trying drugs. They’re more likely to listen if they know that it’s coming from a place of care. Give examples of the risks that come with different drugs and allow them time to respond to these.

Put agreements in place around how your child is going to stay safe when they’re going out with their friends. Always make it clear that they can call you if they get into a situation that feels unsafe. 

Try to do this even if your child or young person tells you something that worries you. Avoid getting angry, shouting, or telling them they’re ‘bad’ for drinking or trying drugs. If they’re worried that you will be cross, they might become secretive about what they’re doing. Remember, you cannot help to keep them safe if you don’t know what’s going on. If they do come to you, think together about what will help make sure they’re safe.

A mother and daughter looking at each other

How to start a conversation if you’re concerned

It’s important to look out for signs that your child’s drinking or drug use is affecting their mental health or wellbeing. You can find a list of common warning signs further down this page.

If you’re worried, start by gently checking in with them. It might help to do this while you’re out on a walk or doing an activity together. This can help to make it feel like less of a ‘big chat’ and encourage them to open up. Use an ‘I’ phrase like, ‘I’ve noticed that you’ve been drinking more when you go out with your friends, can we have a chat about it?’

Supporting your child to make safe and healthy decisions

Before they start thinking about drinking or trying drugs themselves, your child or young person will be learning from what they see you doing. Reflect on your own relationship with drugs or alcohol. What messages might you be sending to them?

Things change with each generation. It’s helpful to know what words are used, what the most common drugs are, and where people are getting them. This will help you feel confident when you’re talking about them and setting boundaries. The Frank website is a good place to start.

Sometimes, a young person might feel like there is pressure to drink or take drugs when they do not want to. Friends or peers might tell them to do it or make them feel bad if they don’t. They might also feel under pressure to explain why they aren’t joining in. This can be particularly difficult for teenagers and young people, because it’s often a time when ‘fitting in’ feels really important.

Peer pressure can leave someone feeling worried, alone and even unsafe. In this situation, make it clear that:

  • there are serious risks involved with drinking or trying drugs
  • when it comes to drugs and alcohol, the only person who gets to decide what they do is them
  • anyone who’s making them feel this way is not being a good friend
  • people who care about us should not push us to do things we’re uncomfortable about
  • someone often pressures people to do things when they’re not feeling good about themselves – it says more about the person who is doing the pressuring than it does about them

You can also look at Childline’s guide to being assertive together. This might be helpful when they want to say no but they’re not sure how.

Over time, your child or young person may start to realise that they're spending time with a group of people who often make them feel bad about themselves. Listen to what this is like for them. Encourage them to join groups or clubs for the things they’re interested in. This can help them to meet new friends.

This might include talking about:

  • their own thoughts and feelings about alcohol and drugs
  • how they can get to know their limits around alcohol, and stay within these
  • how they can make choices that are right for them, rather than the choices they think they ‘should’ make
  • what kind of people they want to spend time with, and how they want to be treated by their friends
  • what they would say if they were offered alcohol or drugs when they didn’t want them
  • what they can do and say if they get into a situation which makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe

When should I be worried about my child or young person?

A father and son sitting at a table smiling with hot drinks

It’s normal for teenagers to experiment. Some will drink alcohol or try drugs. But it is not normal for a teenager to:

  • drink or take drugs alone
  • get very drunk or take drugs frequently
  • feel like they ‘need’ alcohol or drugs to cope with social events or other situations

If you’re concerned that your child is using alcohol or drugs to cope, it’s important to get some help as soon as you can. Getting professional support can prevent things from getting worse. It can also support them to find healthier ways of coping. Speaking to a GP and looking into counselling and therapy are two good places to start.

Signs your child or young person is developing a more serious problem:

  • they are drinking alcohol or taking drugs frequently
  • their drug or alcohol use causes changes in their mood – for example by making them more irritable, tired, anxious, low or agitated
  • they are experiencing other mental health issues such as anxiety or low-mood
  • they are losing interest in the things they used to do, including hobbies or schoolwork
  • they have become secretive about what they’re doing, or money or alcohol is regularly going missing
  • they build up a tolerance, which means they need to have more and more to feel the effect
  • once they start drinking or taking a drug, they find it difficult to stop and often end up drinking or taking a lot
  • they feel like they ‘need’ to drink or take drugs to cope

If your child is experiencing these things, you need to get specialist help as soon as possible.

Where to get help for alcohol and drug problems

Each local area has their own drug and alcohol service. Each service offers different types of support and treatment. This often includes things like counselling, recovery plans and family support. If your child or young person is under 18, this service might be at their local NHS mental health team for young people (known as CAMHS).

The first step to accessing alcohol and drug services is usually to make an appointment with a GP. The GP can discuss what’s happening and refer your child or young person to the right place.

Depending on where you live, your child or young person may be able to refer themselves to CAMHS, or to their local drug and alcohol service. You can find out whether this is possible on the service’s website. They may also be able to join peer support groups. You can find details about support groups at the end of this page.

These directories provide a list of drug and alcohol services near you:

If your child or young person needs urgent help after taking drugs or drinking alcohol, call 999 for an ambulance straightaway.

If you are worried that your child or young person is feeling suicidal, or is not safe, they need urgent help. You can find out who to contact on our urgent help page. You can also find information and advice about suicidal thoughts in our guide for parents and carers.

Looking after yourself

If your child is going through an alcohol or drug problem, it can be a scary and isolating situation to navigate. It’s important to recognise the ways in which it’s affecting you and make time for your own self-care. When your child or young person is struggling, it doesn’t mean you’ve done something wrong. Be kind to yourself. Keep in mind all you’re doing to help them. And remember, they can come out the other side and feel okay again.

If you need some support, you can:

  • talk to trusted friends and family members, and ask them for help
  • reach out to other parents who've been through this
  • speak to your GP about getting counselling support for yourself
  • call the Samaritans anytime on 116 123 if you need to talk
  • speak to any of the organisations listed below

Useful helplines and websites

While we take care to ensure that the organisations we signpost to provide high quality information and advice, we cannot take responsibility for any specific pieces of advice they may offer. We encourage parents and carers to always explore the website of a linked service or organisation to understand who they are and what support they offer before engaging with them.

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This page was reviewed in February 2024.

It was created with insights from parents and carers with lived experience of supporting their child or young person with alcohol and drugs.

We will next review the page in 2027.

YoungMinds is a proud member of PIF TICK – the UK's quality mark for trusted health information.

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