Child Substance Misuse

Safeguarding Network

February 2024 - 3 minute read

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When considering substance misuse, a lot of the time we think about parental drug or alcohol abuse and the impact that this can have on children and young people. However, children and young people are exposed to substances from a very young age, and as with adults there is the potential for addiction and life changing consequences.

For many children and young people, substance misuse (which as we see in the definition below is not only drugs but includes alcohol) is likely to remain experimental.  Children and young people often experiment as a result of peer pressure or it being seen as a rite of passage.  For many children this is where it will both start and stop, and whilst we cannot be complacent about the potential impacts of experimenting with substances (there are many incidences across the country where children and young people have died experimenting), for the majority there will be little to no long-term side effects.

For a proportion of children, substance misuse will become a significant issue in their lives, impacting on their day-to-day functioning both in education and in the wider environment.

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Substance misuse refers to the use of psychoactive substances in a way that is harmful or hazardous to health. This includes alcohol and illicit drugs. The use of such substances can lead to dependency where cognitive, behavioural and physiological problems develop which results in a strong desire to take the drug, difficulties in controlling use, persisting in its use despite harmful consequences, a higher priority given to drug use than to other activities and obligations, increased tolerance, and sometimes a physical withdrawal state.

Adapted from the World Health Organisation

Stages of substance abuse

  • Experimentation – Infrequent use, can be as a result of peer pressure, with the ability to stop use by themselves.
  • Regular use – Not necessarily every day, but can be a predictable pattern or predictable circumstances.
  • Risky use – Misuse can lead to suffering physical, psychological and / or social problems.
  • Dependence – Users will continue to use substances regularly despite harm that it may be causing.
  • Addiction – Substance misuse is often compulsive and out of control with active craving and seeking out use.

Why do young people use substances?

Statistics from the NHS show that 40% of secondary aged pupils reported drinking alcohol. The likelihood of drinking alcohol was shown to increase with age from 13% of 11 year olds to 65% of 15 year olds. Also, just under 1 in 5 pupils reported taking drugs, with this evenly being spread between boys and girls. Pupils were most likely to have tried cannabis and volatile substances (glues, gases, solvents etc), however there were also a relatively high number of young people who had tried nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and new/novel psychoactive substances. Some pupils had tried class A drugs.

A lot of use is experimental or recreational. However, where substance misuse becomes a problem, this can often be linked to starting the misuse before age 15 years, using multiple substances, self-harming, not being in education, training or employment, having mental health needs, being in homes where there is domestic abuse or a history of involvement with Children’s Social Care. Research also shows that a history of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) can lead to increased risks of dangerous substance misuse.

Spot the signs

Child and young people who are misusing substances may have:

  • Changing friendship groups;
  • Signs of self-neglect;
  • Poor attendance / performance;
  • Lack of motivation;
  • Disengagement from hobbies / interests;
  • Change in appetite / eating patterns;
  • Criminal behaviours.

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DSL Training Materials

  • Child Substance Misuse Scenario – Primary Schools – DSL Information Sheet

  • Child Substance Misuse Scenario – Care settings – DSL Information Sheet

  • Child Substance Misuse Scenario – Care Settings

  • Child Substance Misuse Scenario – 16+ / FE settings – DSL Information Sheet

  • Child Substance Misuse Scenario – 16+ / FE settings

  • Child Substance Misuse Scenario – SEND settings – DSL Information Sheet

  • Child Substance Misuse Scenario – SEND settings

  • Child Substance Misuse Scenario – Secondary Schools – DSL Information Sheet

  • Child Substance Misuse Scenario – Secondary Schools

  • Presentation

  • Child Substance Misuse Scenario – Primary Schools

  • Child Substance Misuse Scenario – Early Years settings – DSL Information Sheet

  • Child Substance Misuse Scenario – Early Years Settings

  • Handout for staff

  • Child Substance Misuse – Quiz (Answer Sheet)

  • Child Substance Misuse Quiz

  • Presenter Notes


  • Young people’s substance misuse treatment statistics 2020 to 2021: report

  • Talk to Frank – Honest information about drugs

  • Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use among Young People in England, 2021, National Statistics

  • Searching, Screening and Confiscation: advice for schools

  • DfE and ACPO drug advice for schools

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