There are many different reasons why young people experiment with drugs or alcohol. Experimental use does not necessarily mean that they will go on to develop problematic substance use but, for some young people, early use is a risk factor for developing more serious substance misuse issues.

These risks also increase during times of difficulty and change: such as moving schools, or parental divorce, for example. It is important to take into account that although there can be signs that your child may be using drugs or alcohol, some of these signs may be normal teenage behaviour. The challenge for the parent is to distinguish between what is normal and what may be an indicator of problematic drug or alcohol use.

Physical signs of drug or alcohol use

  • Bloodshot eyes with pupils larger, or smaller, than usual
  • Changes in appetite, or sleep pattern
  • Sudden weight loss, or gain
  • Change in physical appearance: such as less attention to personal hygiene, and not changing clothes
  • Unusual smells on breath, body, or clothing
  • Shakiness, slurred speech and clumsiness
  • Periods of unusual hyperactivity, agitation or giddiness
  • Appearing spaced out
  • Lethargy
  • Lack of motivation
  • Appearing to be more fearful, anxious, or paranoid, for no apparent reason
  • Mood swings
Sad girl sitting on the floor in corner of room,  portrait of a sad teenage girl looking thoughtful about troubles. Depressed teenage girl. Lonely Depressed Teen Girl. Unhappy depressed teenager
Rear view portrait of one teenager boy thinking alone and watching the sea sitting on the sand of the beach with the horizon in the background

Behavioural signs of drug use

  • Skipping classes; deteriorating work at school; suddenly starting to get into trouble at school
  • Unexplained need for money; missing money, valuables or possessions; stealing money
  • Engaging in secretive, or suspicious, behaviour
  • Acting uncharacteristically: such as appearing withdrawn, isolated, angry or depressed
  • Sudden changes of friends, hangouts and hobbies; loss of interests in old hobbies; lying about interests/friends
  • Demanding more privacy; locking doors; avoiding eye contact
  • Getting into trouble/fights/illegal activities.

When you think your child has a drug or alcohol problem

This can be very distressing and can make parents feel angry, upset and frightened. It is important to remain calm when you talk to your child about your concerns. Make it clear that you are concerned because you care about them, as it is important that your child feels supported.

Discuss consequences

Your child needs to know that using drugs or alcohol will have specific consequences – but don’t make rules that you cannot enforce. Ensure that all the family are on board together, so that there is a consistent approach from everyone.

Try not to be judgemental

When talking to the child/young person about your worries, offer help without being judgmental and don’t wait for the person to hit rock bottom. Be prepared for excuses and denials and talk about the behaviour of the person.

Talk to your child

Often drug or alcohol use can be the result of stressful situations.  Are they having problems at school or college; with their friends; or have there been any stressful situations at home, such as moving house, divorce or redundancy?

Get help

Some young people rebel against their parents or school, but will often be more willing to hear information from someone else.  Try contacting his or her GP; a young people’s drug service, such as Y-SMART; or a support worker in school.

Look after yourself

Make sure to say take time for yourself. in reality this may not feel possible. You might be too busy, exhausted or hard up for exercise or hobbies. But even a night in with a friend, a DVD box set or your favourite dinner can help.

Discuss acceptable behaviour

You can help only offer support, you cannot force someone to change. You cannot control their decisions: let them be responsible for their actions, as this is an important step for them to take.

Helping your child

Caring mother calming and hugging upset little daughter
  • Don’t attempt to punish, threaten or bribe. Make sure they know you love them and are proud of them. Praise them for what they do well, and encourage them to try new things.
  • Avoid trying to be a martyr. Avoid emotional appeals that may only increase feelings of guilt and increase the likelihood of the child/young person using drugs or alcohol
  • Don’t cover up or make excuses for them. Don’t shield them from the negative consequences of their behaviour
  • Don’t argue with the person. If you suspect that they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, let them know you are concerned about them, and are there if they need you.
  • Don’t feel guilty or responsible for another’s behaviour. If your child is having problems, don’t be too hard on yourself or blame yourself.