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The legal age for buying alcohol in the UK is 18, yet according to government statistics, up to 70% of 15-year-olds in England have consumed an alcoholic drink, and during 2020-2021, there were 11,013 children under the care of alcohol and drug services in the UK.
How do drugs and alcohol affect children?
There are different ways that children can be affected by drugs and alcohol.
- Children can be indirectly affected by drugs and alcohol. This is when parents or carers consume drugs or alcohol themselves, in excess or dangerously, and they pose a serious risk to the children in their care. For many children whose parents misuse drugs and alcohol, they do not come to any significant harm, but substance misuse in parents can result in the neglect and abuse of a child and, ultimately, they could come to serious harm, including death.
- Children can be directly affected by drugs or alcohol. This is when the child directly consumes drugs and/or alcohol. This can occur through the mother consuming drugs or alcohol when pregnant or breastfeeding, or mainly if children have developed an addiction to drugs and/or alcohol. This can be through other people using them such as their parents, other children or older influential people.
- Children can also be affected by drugs, not through consumption, but through selling them. Young people are increasingly being exploited by older people to sell drugs, as they are younger, more willing and less susceptible to being suspected by the police.
Generally, many teenagers are likely to experiment with alcohol and risk-taking behaviour at some point, and this does not necessarily mean that there is a cause for concern. However, children must be educated on the impact of risky behaviours, including the use of drugs and alcohol.
This is a legal requirement for the school system to fulfil, but parents can also assume this role at home too, speaking openly and honestly about recreational drug and alcohol use.
How do drugs and alcohol affect children’s mental health?
Not all drugs are as addictive or harmful as others, and some people can take drugs and consume alcohol and not suffer from long-lasting effects. Nevertheless, drugs and alcohol have the potential to significantly impact a child’s mental health.
The impact on a child’s mental health is determined by different factors, including what they take, how often they use it, how much they take and how they feel whilst they are taking it.
Drugs and alcohol can be used by children as a mechanism to suppress feelings and emotions surrounding different circumstances in their lives. They may start to use drugs and alcohol as a way of masking negative feelings that can derive from factors which can include childhood trauma, negative family dynamics, child abuse and being bullied.
Whilst these methods of self-medication may provide temporary relief from the particular circumstance they face, children can become dependent upon drugs and alcohol, becoming addicted to how they feel when they use the substance. Additionally, the circumstances that they face tend to feel worse when the substance wears off than if they had not started using it at all.
Use of drugs and alcohol can lead to partaking in other risky behaviours, which can lead to the individual facing a greater level of danger, and even endangering those around them.
What are the signs of drug and alcohol use in children?
Signs of drug and alcohol use in children include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Children who consistently ask for money may have a drug addiction, using the money to purchase drugs or alcohol.
- They may be overly protective of their phone, and may be making phone calls to people unknown to their parents.
- They may steal money to use to buy drugs or alcohol.
- They may play truant from school.
- They may no longer speak to friends that they have had for a long time, and may have developed new friendships, who also display similar behaviours.
- They may have lost enthusiasm for hobbies that they may have once had.
- They may appear to be withdrawn and isolate themselves from family.
- They lie about things that have happened. For example, they may lie about why they have missed school.
- They might have started to lock the door of their bedroom, and generally become more secretive.
- They may start to disregard ground rules, such as curfews and doing homework.
- There may have been a decline in their personal hygiene. They tend to stop bathing frequently, cleaning their teeth or washing their clothes.
- Their eyes may appear red, bloodshot, tired and glassy, and their pupils may be enlarged.
- They may have an increase in nosebleeds due to drug use.
- They may have become increasingly paranoid and irritable, reacting disproportionately to events.
- They may seem to be unable to stay still, perhaps bouncing their knees and feet frequently, or tapping.
- They might have issues with remaining focused.
- You may notice signs of drug use such as track marks on their arms.
- They may appear sweaty, and have a puffy face.
- They report increased headaches and tiredness.
- Intense weight loss or gain.
- Decrease in academic performance.
- Smelling of alcohol.
- Slurred speech.
- Poor sleeping pattern.
- Memory loss.
Can drugs and alcohol affect a child’s development?
For a mother who is pregnant with a child, consuming drugs and alcohol can be detrimental to the development of the foetus, and could lead to the following complications:
- Birth defects. Consuming alcohol and drugs whilst pregnant can lead to foetal alcohol syndrome and other developmental issues concerning the organs and brain.
- Behavioural and intellectual disabilities. Consumption of alcohol and drugs whilst pregnant can lead to altered brain development, with the child developing learning disabilities and low intelligence.
- Low birth weight. Consuming alcohol and drugs whilst pregnant can lead to the child having a low birth weight, as well as a risk of premature birth and miscarriage.
A child who is born to a mother who consumed drugs whilst pregnant may be dependent on the substance they were taking. Known as neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), the condition is described in newborns who were consuming addictive substances through the placenta. Neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome (NOWS) is a term given specifically to newborn babies who are addicted to opioids. Children born with this condition experience withdrawal symptoms when they are born, for days or weeks.
Typically, babies with NAS have been exposed to the following substances through the placenta:
- Benzodiazepines. These are usually prescribed to treat anxiety, depression and insomnia, but have addictive qualities.
- Barbiturates. These are sedative drugs used to treat insomnia, anxiety, pain and seizures.
- Opioids. Prescribed as a pain reliever or cough relief.
Additionally, newborns can be affected in the long term by exposure to the following substances through the placenta, although they may not display withdrawal symptoms:
Signs and symptoms of NAS present in the first three days after birth, can include:
- Crying that won’t settle.
- Low birth weight.
- Sneezing and blocked nose.
- Issues with breathing.
There is a considerable effect on a child’s cognitive and physical development if they consume drugs or alcohol after birth. This may be through breastfeeding or finding drugs and alcohol in their environment.
Many children are at risk of consuming drugs directly, but also suffer through neglect. Parents with a drug or alcohol addiction often do not give their child the nurture and attention they need, which can lead to developmental issues, attachment issues, low self-esteem and depression. They may also not fulfil the physical needs of the child, such as feeding them, cleaning them and taking them for medical check-ups.
Whilst children who use drugs and alcohol in their teen years do not face the same developmental implications as younger children, drugs and alcohol can significantly affect their academic and social development. This can be because drugs can cause permanent brain damage no matter your age, but also because the use of drugs and alcohol can cause children to play truant from school or drop out altogether.
Data has shown that children who consume alcohol prior to the age of fifteen are at a high risk of alcohol abuse in adulthood. Additionally, all people who excessively consume drugs or alcohol are at risk of neurological damage and, in the worst cases, death.
How can children who are affected by alcohol and drugs be helped?
There are several ways that children who are affected by drugs and alcohol can be helped, and it is never too late to help. It is the duty of any adult who suspects that a child is directly or indirectly affected by drugs or alcohol to report this to social services, or safeguarding leads in a school setting.
Neglecting to report this information, or even suspicions, can result in serious harm coming to the child, and can implicate you in the future.
Whilst doctors, healthcare professionals and therapists are all bound by confidentiality, if they feel that a disclosure indicates that a child might be in immediate danger, or at risk of hurting others, they have a duty to report it to local authorities. However, children should be reminded by the adults around them that they are able to tell a doctor that they have chosen to take drugs or drink recreationally, without this being reported to the police.
It is vital that young people know this, as disclosing this to a healthcare professional can help them to overcome potential issues around drugs and alcohol.
Children who have parents who have drug and/or alcohol addictions need support in a variety of ways. They may have had to take on adult roles in the house in lieu of their parents not fulfilling their own adult roles.
Children affected in this way, or by directly consuming drugs and/or alcohol themselves, can be supported in the following ways:
- Counselling. Children who have had to assume adult roles will have a lot of emotions to unpack, and talking about this is beneficial.
- Removing the child from the care of the adult/s. If a child is believed to be in immediate danger from an adult who has a drug and/or alcohol addiction, schools are within their rights to keep the child at school and contact local authorities. Parents may be referred to treatment programmes for drug and alcohol addiction.
- Support groups. Children may benefit from attending a group where young people with similar backgrounds can come together to share their experiences. They can find mutual support in each other.
- Rehabilitation. Children or parents with addictions can go through a rehabilitation programme which can be extremely helpful if it is adhered to.
Who can help children affected by drugs and alcohol?
There are a vast number of organisations that can help children and families with alcohol and drug consumption.
You may find the following organisations helpful:
- The NSPCC helpline is available for anyone who is worried about a child, and to speak to someone yourself if you are a child affected by drugs and alcohol. They can be contacted on their helpline via telephone, or online via live chat.
- Frank is an organisation dedicated to honest and open conversations about drugs among young people, offering a helpline for anyone who is concerned about a friend or child or anyone who is taking drugs themselves.
- Young Minds provides support and resources for adults to support children through the use of drugs and alcohol.
- Turning Point is a social enterprise dedicated to supporting people with drug and alcohol issues, and mental health problems.