What is alcohol and drug misuse and what can it look like?

Alcohol and other drug misuse, sometimes also known as substance abuse, is when someone’s drinking or drug use becomes problematic, harmful, or dependent.

By ‘problematic, harmful, or dependent’ we mean when someone is:

  • putting themselves or others in danger

  • continues to drink or take drugs even if it puts them at risk of illness (both psychological or physical) 

  • craves alcohol or other drugs and continues to use them even though it may be causing them health, social, or financial problems

Signs that you may be addicted to, or misusing, alcohol or other drugs

Signs that you may be addicted to, or misusing, alcohol and other drugs can include: 

  • experiencing withdrawal symptoms, or using alcohol or other drugs to prevent or alleviate withdrawal symptoms 

  • using alcohol or other drugs as a coping mechanism for difficult situations or feelings 

  • choosing alcohol or other drugs over activities and socialising  

  • an increase in tolerance over time and needing a higher quantity of alcohol or other drugs to get the same effect as before 

  • loosing control of your usage, for example if you continually take more than you initially intended and/or are unable to stop 

  • feeling that your life revolves around alcohol or other drugs, for example you may be always thinking about using, thinking about how to get more, engaging in usage, or recovering from use 

If you are worried about your usage, you can find support here.

The use of these substances (both by young people and adults) can have a massive effect on a young person’s life.  

Some young people might be exposed to alcohol use before the legal age of consuming it, so it’s important for parents and carers to understand it's possible affects, to best support those in their care. 

Find out more information below about the effect of alcohol and other drugs on young people, how parental use can also affect children and young people, and support available.

How can alcohol and other drug use affect children?

The misuse of alcohol and other drugs can have a big effect on children at different stages in their lives.

Alcohol and other drug use can put children at risk of:

  • harm and abuse
  • effects to their physical and mental well-being (including losing some/all control of their body)
  • anti-social behaviour
  • effects to their school attendance and grades (i.e poor attendance and low grades)
  • being exposed to criminal activity, which can lead to child criminal exploitation
  • serious illness and/or death

A 16 or 17-year-old, when accompanied by an adult, can drink beer, cider, or wine with their meal. However, UK alcohol laws do not allow them to buy an alcoholic drink until they reach 18 years old.  

Although young people may try, or be exposed to, alcohol before they are 18, it is not normal for them to drink in excess (especially when they are on their own), drink regularly, or be dependent on alcohol. 

If you are worried about the drug or alcohol use of a young person in your care, there are support services available to you.

What is the law on underage drinking?

It is against the law to:

  • buy alcohol if you’re under 18 years old
  • ask anyone to buy you alcohol if you’re under 18 years old
  • give alcohol to children under 5 years old

How can parental alcohol and drug use affect children?

Alcohol or other drug use by a parent or carer puts children more at risk of harm, with one of the biggest risks being that they are unable to provide safe care for the young people in their care.

Parental alcohol or other drug use can also put children at risk of:

  • abuse, including physical and emotional abuse
  • taking on care responsibilities of their parents or siblings
  • possible lead to neglect
  • exposure to drugs or criminal activity

It can also affect children before birth. Using drugs or alcohol during pregnancy can put babies at risk of withdrawal symptoms, birth defects, premature births and being born underweight.

It’s important that parents or carers who are concerned about their substance use get the advice and support they need. Click here to find support available to you.

How to speak to a child about alcohol and other drugs

If a child approaches you about alcohol or other drugs, it’s important not to be judgmental and listen openly to the young person.

Removing the stigma and threat of punishment will allow them to open up to you, trust you, and gives you a better opportunity to hear what has been going on.

If you’re a parent or career, it’s a good idea to familiarise and educate yourself on the topic, so if conversations around alcohol and drugs do happen you feel prepared. You can read our guide on how to talk to children about alcohol and other drugs here.

AnchorWhere to find information and support for alcohol and drug use

Regardless of your age or situation, support is available for you.

Search for Barnardo’s support services near you or get in touch with one of the below organisations.

Alcohol and other drug support services and information:

We Are With You

Free, confidential, online support for people experiencing issues with alcohol, other drugs and mental health.

We Are With You have over 80 services and have a free online chat function where you can access support. Find out more about these services by visiting the We Are With You website.


Friendly and confidential advice on drugs.

FRANK is a website that has honest information about drugs, details of local and national services, and where to go to if you need help. Find out more about these services by visiting the FRANK website.


A harm reduction and outreach charity based in Scotland.

Crew offer free, digital drop-in services and in-person drop-ins in Edinburgh. To find more information about these support services and information on alcohol and other drugs, visit their website here.


A national charity tackling the effects of drugs and alcohol on family members and friends.

Adfam empowers families and friends to get the support they need, you can find out more about their services on their website here.

Help in a crisis

If someone’s physical or mental health needs immediate attention, or you are worried about your own or someone else’s safety, call 999.

If the situation is not as urgent, but you are still experiencing a crisis you can:

  • call your GP and ask for an emergency appointment
  • call NHS 111
  • contact your mental health crisis team (if you have one)
  • call Samaritans for free on 116 123

Alcohol Specific Support Services:


A confidential helpline for anyone concerned about drinking. Call them free on 0300 123 1110.

Drink Aware

Drinkaware provides independent alcohol advice, information and tools to help people make better choices about their drinking. You can find more guidance on their website here.

Other ways to get support:

How we support families at Barnardo’s 

At Barnardo’s we support young people and their families with problems arising from alcohol and other drug use. There is also support available if you are a parent or career who is struggling.

We prioritise a non-judgmental approach, where we really listen to the young person about their experiences and consider how we can best help both [the young person] and their family.

Kevin Hattam

Children Services Manager, Axis Service Falkirk 

What should I do if I’m worried about a child? 

If you are concerned that a child may be at imminent risk, always call 999 immediately.  

If you are concerned that a young person could be at non-immediate risk, there are services you can contact for support: 

If you are worried about a child it is important that you share that concern. The information you have may help professionals to build a better picture about what might be happening.

  • Mental health services for children and young people 

    No child should be left to deal with poor mental health alone - and that’s why we offer a range of mental health support services for children, young people, and their families.   

  • Helping families 

    Every child should grow up feeling loved and supported. We provide a range of services to help and support families across the UK. 

  • Support keeping children safe from harm and child abuse 

    Find out more about what child abuse is and information about different types of abuse, including how to spot it and where to find help.