Substance misuse

Why do young people use drugs?

The main reason children first use alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs is because they are curious. They may enjoy the effect of the drug, or the way drugs take away physical or emotional pain. Many children view alcohol as integral to growing up and social interactions. Children are constantly trying to make sense of the world and work out where they fit in. Children will be exposed to drugs throughout their lives. Their decision to try drugs or to continue to use a drug will reflect

  • What is going on in children’s lives and how they are coping
  • Who they are with and where they are at the time
  • Their beliefs and values
  • Experimentation and risk taking behaviour
  • Alcohol and other drug practices of those around them, including family members and peers
  • Exposure to media influences and the internet
  • Access and availability to alcohol and other drugs

It is impossible to accurately predict who will develop a drug problem. There are risk factors and protective factors which are useful to know.

Risk factors

  • Unpredictable and chaotic home environments, where adults are stressed, mentally ill or using drugs themselves
  • Peer groups where drug use is normal, where illegal or antisocial behaviours are accepted, and where activities are not monitored by adults
  • School and work places which are unsupportive
  • School environments where aggressive behaviour and poor performance are tolerated

Protective factors

  • Strong family bonds, with clear and consistent rules about acceptable behaviours, mutual responsibilities, and shared activities.
  • Parents and carers involved in children’s interests and activities
  • Clear and consistent boundaries
  • Opportunities for success and meaningful involvement in activities in the community, such as sports
  • Attendance at school and a positive school environment
  • Good school performance
  • A sense of belonging

The presence of some or all of these protective factors above does not automatically mean that a child will not experiment with drugs or alcohol. It is important that you don’t use drugs or alcohol inappropriately. This means you should not use any illegal drugs and use alcohol minimally.

What to do if you suspect drug use

  • Provide a supportive environment where the child can talk to you about issues
  • Discuss drug use in an impersonal manner, eg use current media events as a talking point
  • Talk with them and be involved in their life - this is the best way to find out what is going on in their life
  • Talk about things that are worrying you and how it makes you feel
  • Don't search rooms or belongings - invading their privacy may harm your relationship
  • Find activities they enjoy such as sport, dancing, exercise


Some of the behaviours you notice may be just normal adolescent behaviour or an indicator of other problems in their life.

Some mental health conditions result in behaviour that can be mistaken for drug use.

Experimentation does not inevitably mean that a child is going to develop a significant drug problem or become dependent on drugs.

Talk to your care team about any concerns.

You can find more information about substance misuse by visiting these websites.

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