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How vaping, smoking, alcohol and drugs affects teens

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Raising a teenager Teens and risk-taking behaviour

Teenagers are natural risk takers – and while this can be a good thing, it can also lead to them experimenting with legal or illegal substances like vapes, tobacco, alcohol or drugs. All these substances can be harmful to a greater or lesser degree – and particularly to young people, whose brains and bodies are still developing. 

Here’s some more information about vaping, smoking, alcohol and drugs, and what to do if you’re worried about your teen’s behaviour.

If you suspect your teen may have used any of these substances, don’t panic. On the whole, experimenting with substances may not always lead to long term harms. They may well have tried it to see what it was like and then thought ‘never again’! But you won’t know unless you talk to them – you can find tips for talking to your teen about vaping, smoking, alcohol and drugs here.
 

Why do teens experiment with vaping, smoking, alcohol or drugs?

As our page on risk-taking behaviour explains, teenagers’ brains are still developing. This means they can’t always think through the consequences of the things they do and are more impulsive. As a result, they’re more likely to try things like smoking and drinking ‘for fun’, without considering the harm they could be doing to themselves. 

In addition, many teens really want to fit in with their friends and are scared of being rejected by them. This means they can sometimes be persuaded to do things they don’t particularly want to do or know they shouldn’t do, so as not to feel left out. 

In some cases, young people use substances like tobacco, alcohol and drugs to help them feel less anxious or stressed, or to escape other feelings they can’t cope with.

If you find out your teen has been vaping, smoking, drinking or taking drugs it can really help to find out why, as this can help you support them. Our pages on vaping and talking to your teen about vaping, smoking, drinking and drugs has tips to help start the conversation.

Vaping

Brightly coloured vapes

Brightly coloured vapes

Electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes or vapes) are battery-powered devices which heat a liquid that becomes a vapour you inhale. This liquid often contains nicotine and flavourings.

You can find out more about e-cigarettes, how to spot the signs that your child may be vaping and how to support them on our page on vaping.

Smoking

We all know that smoking is bad for us, and is linked to lots of different cancers, as well as heart disease and strokes. And it’s even more harmful for young people, whose bodies and brains are still developing. Stopping smoking at any time is one of the best things you can do for your health.  This is one of the reasons why selling tobacco products to under 18s or buying them for under 18 year olds is illegal in Scotland.

So you’ll be relieved to hear that these days not many young people in Scotland actually smoke cigarettes. But if you suspect your teen is smoking, you should talk to them about it as soon as you can, to make sure they understand the costs and dangers and support them to stop. 

Anyone wishing to quit smoking or vaping can contact Quit Your Way Scotland on 0800 84 84 84 – there’s no minimum age limit.

Alcohol

There are good reasons why the legal age for drinking in Scotland is 18.

  • Teenagers’ brains and bodies are still growing and developing, and alcohol can cause permanent damage to both. 
  • Even small amounts of alcohol can lead to alcohol poisoning, because young people’s bodies can’t deal with it.
  • If your teen is drinking, they’re more likely to find themselves in unsafe situations, like trying to get home on their own late at night or having unprotected sex, or to take other risks, like getting into fights.
  • If your teen’s drinking regularly, they’re more likely to be tired, grumpy and feel ill. This can have a negative effect on their relationships with family and friends, and on how well they do at school.

The best advice for young people’s health and wellbeing is not to drink alcohol at all. If children do drink alcohol (even though it’s not recommended), it shouldn’t be until they’re at least 15 years old.

You can find out more about the laws around alcohol and the effects of underage drinking on the Drinkaware website.

What to do if your teen comes home drunk

If your teen is drunk, now is not the time to start lecturing them! Just make sure they’re safe and leave talking to them about it until the following day.

Don’t just send them to bed to sleep it off – make sure they’ve sobered up, have drunk some water and aren’t going to be sick before you leave them. You can find out more about how to look after someone who’s drunk too much and how to check for signs of alcohol poisoning on the NHS website.

Drugs

Teens at a house party handing each other a clear packet of white pills.

Teens at a house party handing each other a clear packet of white pills.

There’s a huge range of substances that can be used to alter mood or ‘get high’. These range from household products like aerosols and glue to prescription drugs like codeine and diazepam and illegal drugs like cannabis, ecstasy and heroin. Different drugs have different risks but all can be harmful to young people’s growing bodies and brains. You can find out more about different drugs and their effects on the Know the Score website.

Again, you’ll be relieved to hear that most young people don’t do drugs, and many who do only try them once or twice. The most common drug young people use is cannabis, and only a small minority of those who try it move on to other drugs.

While there are serious risks involved in drug use (including cannabis), it might help to remember that most young people who try drugs don’t suffer any long-term harm to their health.

That said, it’s important to have open conversations with your teen about drugs, so that they know they can come to you with any questions or concerns. Our page on talking to your teen about vaping, smoking, alcohol and drugs has tips for starting the conversation.

Signs your teen may be drinking or taking drugs

Some of the signs your teen may be using alcohol and drugs – like moodiness, sleeping more, becoming more secretive or changing the way they dress or the friends they see – are also perfectly normal symptoms of growing up. So don’t go rushing to accuse your teen of anything just because they seem a bit grumpy! Our page on teen behaviour can help you work out what’s normal and what may be a warning sign that something may be wrong.

Here are some warning signs to look out for – but remember, they don’t necessarily mean your child is drinking or taking drugs. They could have another explanation altogether.

  • Having problems at school, or skipping classes altogether
  • Spending more time alone and refusing to hang out with the family
  • Falling out with old friends and/or hanging out with new people 
  • Having mood swings that seem out of character, or seeming irritable and agitated
  • Unusual sleeping patterns or problems sleeping
  • Using breath mints or incense or air fresheners to mask smells
  • Being evasive about where they’re going, who they’re meeting, or what they’re doing
  • Needing more money than usual, selling a lot of their belongings or even stealing from you.

Physical signs to look out for include:

  • Taking less care of their appearance and hygiene
  • Having outbreaks of spots or acne
  • Losing their appetite, or feeling sick or ill in the mornings.

Supporting your teen if they are vaping, smoking or using alcohol or drugs

If you suspect your child may be experimenting with vaping, smoking, alcohol or drugs, the first things to do is talk to them about it. We’ve got lots of tips to help with that conversation here. If your teen refuses to open up, you could try asking another adult they trust to have a chat with them.

There are also some practical steps you can take to try and control the situation, like:

  • Making your home a vape, cigarette or alcohol free zone.
  • Keeping any prescription drugs in a secure place.
  • Monitoring your teen’s activities more closely. For example, you could start dropping them off and picking them up when they go out, so you know where they are. 
  • Stopping, reducing or monitoring their allowance or pocket money.

There are lots of organisations offering help and support – you don’t have to deal with this on your own. You could start by making an appointment with your GP, who’ll be able to offer advice and signpost to support without judging you or your child. 

Vaping and smoking

  • Childline offers advice and help for young people to give up vaping or smoking.
  • Quit Your Way Scotland offers support to anyone looking to give up vaping or smoking, no matter how old they are. You or your child can chat to an adviser on the helpline or online.

Alcohol and drugs

  • Childline has help and advice for your people around alcohol and drugs.
  • YoungMinds have information and advice on drinking and drugs and can guide your teen to further sources of support.
  • Drinkaware offers a free, confidential helpline for anyone who is concerned about their drinking, or someone else's, and also lists other support lines you can call.
  • You can get free and confidential support about drugs and alcohol by calling the We Are With You helpline on 0333 230 9468 or via web chat.
  • Know the Score offers free, confidential advice about drugs by phone, webchat or email.
  • You can find drug support services near you using the Scottish Drug Services Directory.
  • The DSM Foundation website has lots of helpful information for parents to help you support teens to make informed choices.
  • Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs (SFAD) supports anyone who is concerned about someone else’s alcohol or drug use. They offer advice and support through their helpline, web chat and email.

Supporting your teen's mental health

Sometimes teens experiment with different substances out of curiosity or because it sounds like fun. But sometimes this behaviour can stem from other problems, like anxiety, depression or low self-esteem. If you’re concerned about your teen’s mental health, our page on getting support has lots of advice to help.

What to do in an emergency

If your teen needs medical help, call 999 straightaway and tell the ambulance crew everything you know about what they’ve been drinking or taking. For more advice, take a look at the emergency advice from Know the Score.

Last updated: 21 Dec, 2023