PurposeYoung people’s involvement should lead to research, and ultimately services, that better reflect young people’s priorities and concerns. Young people with a history of treatment for alcohol and/or drug problems were actively involved in the youth social behaviour and network therapy study. The purpose of this paper is to explore the impact of that involvement on the study and what was learnt about involving young people in drug and alcohol research.Design/methodology/approachThe initial plan was to form a young people’s advisory group (YPAG), but when this proved problematic the study explored alternative approaches in collaboration with researchers and young people. Input from 17 young people informed all key elements of the study.FindingsInvolvement of young people needs to be dynamic and flexible, with sensitivity to their personal experiences. Engagement with services was crucial both in recruiting young people and supporting their ongoing engagement. This research identified a need to critically reflect on the extent to which rhetorics of participation and involvement give rise to effective and meaningful involvement for young service users. It also highlights the need for researchers to be more flexible in response to young people’s personal circumstances, particularly when those young people are “less frequently heard”.Research limitations/implicationsThis research highlights the need for researchers to be more flexible in response to young people’s personal circumstances, particularly when those young people are “less frequently heard”. It highlights the danger of young people in drug and alcohol research being unintentionally disaffected from involvement through conventional approaches and instead suggests ways in which young people could be involved in influencing if and how they participate in research.Practical implicationsThere is an apparent contradiction between dominant discourses and cultures of health services research (including patient and public involvement) that often do not sit easily with ideas of co-production and young people-centred involvement. This paper provides an alternative approach to involvement of young people that can help to enable more meaningful and effective involvement.Originality/valueThe flexible and young people-centred model for involvement which emerged from this work provides a template for a different approach. This may be particularly useful for those who find current practice, such as YPAG, inaccessible.