Parent's Guide: alcohol, drugs & children with a brain injury
Like adults, young people drink and
use drugs for many reasons, both positive (to feel good) and
negative (to escape problems).
All families can find the situation challenging, but for
the young person with a brain injury, the issues are often more
complex. In general, drugs and alcohol are riskier for someone with
a brain injury than for other young people.
A brain injury increases
The issues are complex for young people with brain disorder such
brain tumour, traumatic brain injury, meningitis or
Alcohol and drugs can dramatically affect someone with a brain
injury - considerably more than someone without a brain injury -
and this increases the risk of an accident or police attention.
Alcohol and drug use after a brain injury also carries a greater
risk of causing further brain damage, or triggering seizures.
Some young people with a brain injury drink or use drugs to mask
painful experiences or cope with stress-frequent heavy drinking may
thus be an indicator of other problems.
A brain injury often affects the skills that are needed to use
drugs and alcohol sensibly and safely - motivation, insight,
memory, organization and planning. Also the desire to have friends
and fit in may make a young person with a brain injury more
vulnerable to peer group pressure.
Alcohol can also interfere with many medications, especially
anti-epileptic drugs which are commonly taken after a head
Should I prevent my child from using
For some parents or carers, 'no' may seem like the most sensible
message. Other parents assume they can't - or shouldn't - prevent
experimentation with 'forbidden' activities and they therefore aim
to reduce the chance of harm to the young person.
Forbidding use can sometimes have the opposite effect of what is
intended. It may be more constructive to set clear limits - for
example, one can of beer at a party - rather than saying 'no
Carrying out any plan - whether it involves saying no to drugs
or using them safely - may be difficult if a young person has
problems with self-control, judgement and decision making, or
difficulty understanding information, anticipating problems, and
following through a plan of action.
If self-control is difficult, it may be best to focus on
controlling exposure to drugs and alcohol. This means setting clear
limits and keeping some control over the young person's social
It may help to discuss this with a professional who understands
both brain injury and substance abuse; or, if not available,
someone with expertise in youth substance abuse, and make sure they
understand the issues relating to your child's a brain injury.
Above all, you should, as a family, choose the approach that
suits your own style, values and circumstances.
Can my child learn responsibility?
For almost all young people with a brain injury, the short
answer is 'yes'-given an approach tailored to the young person's
particular abilities and problems. Parents often find it valuable
to talk with a professional about this. A professional can assess
your child's strengths and problems, and work with you to develop
and carry out a program to teach the skills needed.
The following broad guidelines may also help:
- Be responsible yourself in your use of alcohol and drugs, and
talk about responsible use with your child
- Teach your young person ways to resist peer pressure - for
example, always carry a full glass at a party, or fill your own
glass with soft drink
- Drop off and pick up the young person from parties, or pay for
a cab fare home
- Don't say 'no' to everything, as this may push young people
towards problem behaviour
- Young people with a brain injury may also need firm and clear
rules about what's acceptable and safe.
How can I tell if my child is using
It's not always easy. The effects of a brain injury can look
like intoxication, and other so-called 'warning signs' can be
similar to the effects of a brain injury, such as disregard for
others, a drop in school performance, slurred speech or emotional
outbursts and rapid mood swings. A child could also have worsened
memory problems and social isolation.
It can be difficult to decide whether these are simply part of
the brain injury, or a sign of problems with alcohol or other
drugs. Your best guide, as a parent, is probably your own knowledge
of your child and your 'gut feeling'.
What if I think there is a serious
Young people seldom tell their parents about a drug or alcohol
problem, either spontaneously or when asked directly. Someone with
experience of brain injury, young people and substance abuse - if
you can find such a person - can provide useful guidance.
Otherwise, find someone with experience in young people and
substance abuse, and ensure they understand the issues relating to
your child's brain injury.
For some young people, drug use can become a serious and
debilitating problem, but most who experiment with drugs grow out
of it with little or no long-term damage. Drug use is a reason for
concern, but not for panic.
If your child needs professional assistance, you may have to
support him/her in seeking this. Difficulties with short-term
memory, organization and planning can prevent young people from
taking the initiative themselves. Ideally, find someone who is
knowledgeable about both brain injury and drug issues. In reality,
you may need to talk to, and bring together, a brain injury
specialist and a person who is knowledgeable about drug and alcohol
Try to keep channels of communication open - be ready to talk
and listen in a supportive, non-judgemental way. Take a 'problem
solving' approach, possibly with outside expert advice. Be clear
about how you and your family approach the issue. You need to
deliver a clear, consistent message to your young person with a
Discipline needs to be rational and sensible. Don't start
something you can't carry through (for example, threatened
punishments), but set firm limits on what you will and won't
Do whatever you can to make sure your child is safe, even when
he or she is doing something you don't approve of.
Consider talking with someone at the school - maybe your child's
teacher, the year level coordinator, the school nurse, the school
counsellor - bearing in mind any confidentiality issues for your
child. A school with a positive and preventive approach to
drug-related issues can be very supportive and helpful.
Provide your child with opportunities for being involved in
community activities in a positive way - for example, in sports
teams or youth groups.
Do things together with your child, and as a family. Show an
active interest in his or her activities and notice
Find out what you can about drugs and the actual risks involved.
Contact your Brain Injury Association for organizations offering
useful advice, information and services in relation to alcohol and
References and further information
Many thanks to Brain Foundation Victoria for permission to
adapt their material for this fact sheet.