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Dr Dennis Ougrin

Author: Dr Dennis OugrinConsultant Child Psychiatrist

Finding out, or suspecting, your child or teenager has a problem with drugs or alcohol is a very worrying time for parents – not only is it hard to know how best to help your child, but many parents will worry about the long-term impact it will have on their child’s health and wellbeing. We can help.

Signs your child or teenager is using drugs or alcohol

The brain undergoes a huge amount of development during adolescence, so using substances like cannabis, legal highs or cocaine can potentially have a greater long-term impact on a teenager than it would for fully developed adults1.

The signs that your child or teenager may be using drugs or alcohol will depend on several factors, for instance, what they are using and their own personality.

But, if your child is showing some of the following signs and you suspect something isn’t right, it’s always best to check things out – the following signs might be a sign of another disorder like depression or anxiety.

Behavioural signs you teenager may be using drugs or alcohol

  • Truancy from school
  • New social group
  • Going out more often / staying out late
  • Changes to personality
  • Hostility or violence towards others
  • Secrecy
  • Stealing/lying/valuables going missing
  • Increased risk to self and others
  • Low motivation
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Paranoia
  • Psychosis – hearing voices, hallucinating

Physical signs your teenager may be using drugs or alcohol

  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Tiredness and lethargy
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Loss of coordination
  • Memory problems
  • Lung complaints
  • Finding or smelling drugs/alcohol on them

1 Morris, S. and Wagner, E.

Find out more about the causes of behavioural issues here

of deaths in 16-24 year olds are attributed to alcohol consumption

There was clearly a lot of thought and effort put into the session and the detailed report we received afterwards. It has helped us to understand our son better and what we need to do, as a family, to move forward.

Jo, Newcastle

Causes of drug & alcohol use in children and teenagers

It’s likely that a combination of factors are the cause of your child or teen’s substance use and these can include:

  1. Experimentation
  2. Boredom
  3. Peer pressure
  4. Exam or school pressure
  5. Testing boundaries
  6. Managing difficult emotions/feelings
  7. Other mental health conditions

Research has shown that there is a strong likelihood that children and teenagers who use drugs and alcohol will have another mental health condition and may be using the substances to help them cope with some of their negative feelings.

The most common conditions are behavioural disorders. Up to 50%2 of young people who have abused drugs will have a conduct disorder (CD) or oppositional defiance disorder (ODD), but depression, anxiety, PTSD and ADHD are also common.

Studies with twins show that there is a strong hereditary link for drug and alcohol use, some estimate that around 50% of children or teens who use drugs and alcohol will have a close family member with an addiction3.

It’s common for young people to start by using drugs like cannabis or having the odd drink and then for things to escalate in terms of severity and frequency. We know that addiction is a progressive disease with long-term physical and mental health consequences, so early intervention is crucial to ensuring that things don’t get worse.

3 Enoch, M., et al (2001)

Children of addicts are 8 times more likely to develop an addiction

Treating drug and alcohol issues in children and teenagers

The first step to getting help for your child is an assessment with a child and adolescent psychiatrist, who will be able to determine if there are any other mental health conditions that could also be present.

If your child is depressed or has anxiety or ADHD, it may be that dealing with these conditions first will help them reduce their usage. Medication and talking therapies are effective in dealing with a wide variety of conditions.

Talking therapies such as CBT and Motivational Interviewing can be helpful for your child – by being able to talk to someone objective about their feelings and experiences, many young people will gain a sense of self-esteem and self-worth that is often lacking in those that turn to drugs or alcohol.

No matter what psychological therapies are used, there should typically be a family component to the treatment of substance use disorders in young people. This will allow all the family members to be heard and these sessions can support and embed the principles your child is learning through their individual therapy, into the home unit.

Read more about treating behavioural issues

Substance use disorders are common in teens, although the nature of substances used has changed over time. Heroin use, for instance, has reduced very dramatically, but new substances have emerged. Adolescence is typically the time when substance use disorders begin. As child mental health specialists, we are presented with a unique opportunity to prevent what could become a lifetime of suffering.
Dr Dennis Ougrin
MBBS, MRCPsych, PGDip (Oxon), CCT, PhD

Consultant Child Psychiatrist

Dr Ougrin is a psychiatrist with nearly 10 years of clinical and academic experience specialising in child and adolescent psychiatry. He also has undertaken much research in the area of self-harm and has developed an effective intervention for...


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