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Young people and problematic alcohol and other drugs use

Problematic alcohol and other drugs use for young people is more than just risk-taking behaviour. Understand why alcohol and other drugs use becomes a part of the daily lives of some people, and why their use becomes problematic.

For many, the use of alcohol or drugs is one of the ways they resist, cope and survive. They need your support. Take time to get to know the young person and their whole story, not just their story of alcohol and other drugs use or the problem behaviour you first see.

If a young person says any of the following, it indicates that their alcohol and other drugs  use may be risky or problematic for them:

  • I drink or use all the time, every day, often and regularly to get through a day or cope.
  • I drink or use to ‘numb’ out or escape from the bad ways that I feel inside.
  • I drink or use to forget about the bad things that have happened to me.
  • I do not go to school or cannot learn because of the way alcohol and other drugs  use affects me.
  • I am starting to think and see things that are not real. I am paranoid about other people and what is happening around me.
  • I have problems with my friends/ parents/ carers because of my drinking or using drugs.
  • I cannot cope when I am not drinking or using.
  • I go through signs of withdrawal when I am not drinking or using.
  • The way I live each day depends on whether I am drinking or using.
  • My time, thoughts and feelings revolve around getting and using alcohol or drugs.
  • Sometimes I [break the law / are sexually exploited] to get alcohol or drugs.
  • When I buy or use I am around people and places that hurt me.
  • The only people that I hang around are other young people and adults who drink or use with me.

Further reading

Working with young people with drug or alcohol related problems means practitioners will often be working with young people who have experienced trauma in some form. View information on trauma informed care at the Youth Drugs and Alcohol Advice (YoDAA).

Some young people are more vulnerable

Risk factors for a young person becoming dependent on alcohol and drugs include:

  • genetics and family history
  • mental health issues
  • the age when they started using alcohol or drugs
  • family and childhood experiences, including abuse, neglect and trauma
  • social environment (cultural and social norms regarding alcohol and drugs)
  • the types of drugs they use
  • not going to school or not working.

Some groups of young people are at greater risk of using substances, usually due to a lot of stress in their lives. These young people tend to be:

  • very young adolescents
  • lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex or queer (LGBTIQ+)
  • ethnic and religious minorities
  • young or expecting parents
  • those in juvenile justice or closed settings
  • from war-torn societies
  • be refugees
  • immigrants
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
  • homeless
  • in out-of-home care.

Further reading

See the resources section for information from the organisation 'Open Doors' about working with LGBTIQ+ young people.

See the practice kit Safe care and connection for information on working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people.

Alcohol and other drugs use as a way of coping and surviving

A young person’s problematic substance use can be a way of coping and surviving—their way of dealing with pain and their way to protest what is happening with them. They may be trying to manage or self-medicate feelings of anxiety, depression, hopelessness and grief. They may be experiencing violence, sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect, mental health issues or trauma.

Understanding why a young person drinks alcohol or uses drugs will help you see the underlying issues that need to be addressed to support them to decrease or stop their problematic use.

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