Alcohol misuse

Many adults drink alcohol occasionally and some young people will try drinking alcohol before they turn 18. Most people drink alcohol safely, but your drinking could be unsafe if you are too young, or you struggle to manage how much or how often you drink.

You are misusing alcohol if you drink it in a way that:

  • harms your physical health
  • harms your mental health
  • causes problems with the people around you (e.g., with your family, friends or school)
  • has led to you becoming dependent on alcohol.

This definition is based on alcohol misuse among adults and will look different for children and young people at different ages. This is because children and young people’s bodies and brains are still developing and so are more vulnerable to the negative effects of alcohol. Warning signs that you might need some support with how much alcohol you drink include:

  • needing to go to hospital because someone has been worried that you might have alcohol poisoning
  • getting injuries while drinking alcohol
  • being in risky situations (e.g., having unprotected sex) because drinking alcohol has affected your decisions
  • getting into arguments or conflict.

The healthiest option is to avoid drinking alcohol before you are 18 years old and especially not before you are 15 years old. If you are 15–17 years old and choose to drink alcohol then try to only do this rarely, never more than once a week.

Starting to drink regularly at an earlier age can increase the risk of alcohol misuse as an adult. Other physical health problems such as liver disease can also build up over time, so drinking too much over a long period of time can increase your risk of these related health problems.

Problems with alcohol misuse among children and young people can often happen at the same time as other mental health conditions, problems with other people (e.g., family or friends) or problems at school. If you are drinking alcohol in a way that worries a professional then they might also have concerns about your safety. For example, they might have concerns about whether your parents or carers need some extra support with looking after you or whether you might be at risk of falling into manipulative and inappropriate relationships with other young people or adults.

Where can I get help?

If you are worried about your drinking then you should make an appointment with your GP or talk to another professional (such as someone at your school or college) who should be able to help you find support. In most areas there are specialist alcohol and drug misuse services for young people and they often accept self-referral by the young person or a parent or carer.

You can find more advice about reducing and stopping your drinking on the drinkaware website, as well as advice if you are worried about someone else.

If your alcohol misuse might be part of another problem (such as depression or anxiety) then you might need a referral to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). Your GP or another professional, such as a school nurse, could make a referral for you and in some areas CAMHS also accept self-referrals from parents, carers or young people.

You can find more information about mental health referrals here and more information about local mental health services here.

Planning treatment

The aim of treatment for children and young people will be to support you to stop drinking completely, as well as helping you with any other difficulties you’re experiencing. The type of help you’re offered will depend on:

  • how you tend to drink alcohol
  • how your alcohol misuse is affecting you and those around you
  • the reasons why you drink alcohol
  • whether you’re experiencing other difficulties
  • your age
  • your family and social circumstances

If you have been drinking regularly and/or heavily or there are concerns about your physical health then your GP or doctor might also need to carry out some checks on your physical health. Physical dependence on alcohol can mean that you experience withdrawal symptoms when you stop drinking. This is rare in young people, but if you have been drinking heavily and/or for a long time then your professional should assess whether you are at risk of withdrawal symptoms. If your professional is concerned that you might experience withdrawal symptoms then they might suggest that you stay in hospital for assisted withdrawal.

You might be offered support to stop drinking alongside another type of treatment if your alcohol misuse is a symptom of another problem (for example if you are using alcohol to cope with low mood or anxiety) or if you have another mental health condition. You and your family might also be supported by children’s social care services if your alcohol misuse is linked to any concerns about your safety.

Treatments to help you stop drinking include:

  • Individual cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) if you do not have any other mental health conditions and have good family and social support. Research has found that CBT is more helpful if your family are involved.
  • Family based treatments (also called multi-component treatments) if you have another mental health condition and/or if you need extra social support. These treatment options might also involve other parts of your life such as school or college. Your professional could suggest this type of support if you are younger and your parents or carers need help to support you better or if you find it difficult to manage CBT.
  • Medication called Acamprosate, but this would only usually be offered if you are over 16, have developed physical dependence on alcohol (so that you experience withdrawal symptoms) and CBT or family based treatments are not helping you to stop drinking. Medication cannot cure alcohol misuse, but it can help people to avoid drinking.

You can find more information about how treatments decisions are made here.

What about my parents or carers?

Treatment for alcohol misuse among children and young people is often more helpful if your parents or carers are involved and some treatments aim to work with both you and your family (e.g., family based treatments). This doesn’t mean that your parents or carers will know everything that happens in your individual sessions, you can find more information about confidentiality and privacy here.

The wellbeing of your parents or carers is important and they may need support and advice themselves. Your professional should help your parents or carers to access any support they need, which could include:

  • emotional support
  • practical support with your care
  • planning in case of emergencies
Transitions between services

Transitioning from services for young people to adult services can be a worrying time and usually happens when you are around 18. To help it go smoothly, your professional should leave plenty of time to work with you to plan the change. You should be given clear information on what to expect from adult services and it can be helpful to involve your parents or carers in the process.

You may also transition to another CAMHS service (e.g., if you move house). If this happens, your professional should work with you to make sure that your care can continue smoothly and that your new service has all the information they need.

For more information about transitioning between services, please see Moving on.

Additional support

The below organisations offer alcohol misuse support for children, young people and their families:

  • Al-AnonUK: organisation which offers support to those who may have been affected by someone else’s drinking including siblings and young relatives of young people affected by alcohol misuse
  • AFC Crisis Messenger: a free, confidential, 24/7 text message support service for anyone who is feeling overwhelmed or is struggling to cope. If you need support, you text AFC to 85258.
  • Childline: Childline is there to help anyone under 19 in the UK with any issue they’re going through. Whether it’s something big or small, their trained counsellors are there to support you
  • Dan 24/7: organisation offering support to people struggling with alcohol and/or substance misuse in Wales
  • Drinkaware: independent UK charity which aims to reduce alcohol-related harm
  • Drugs and Alcohol NI: organisation offering support to people struggling with alcohol and/or substance misuse in Northern Ireland
  • FRANK: website and hotline offering support to people struggling with alcohol and/or substance misuse in England
  • Know the score: website with webchat and helpline for people struggling with alcohol and/or substance misuse in Scotland
  • People Health Agency: organisation offering public health support in northern Ireland
  • Supportline: charity offering helpline for people of all ages on a wide range of issues including anger, eating disorders, self-harm, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and addictions
  • The Mix: support and advice for children and young people under 25
  • withyou: organisation offering support to people struggling with alcohol and/or substance misuse across the UK. Website includes webchat support

Treatments outlined on these webpages may not be available in every local area. It’s important that you discuss with your GP or mental health professional the treatment options available to you. You can also search for services near you on our Youth Wellbeing Directory and find out more about referral processes here.

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