Teenagers and Alcohol

See also: Dealing with Concerns About Your Teenager

It may be illegal for young people to buy alcohol before the age of 18 (in the UK) or 21 (in the USA), but research shows that the vast majority of teenagers regard drinking as normal.

For example, a recent survey in the UK found that 60% of those aged 15 and 16 thought that drinking was a normal part of growing up. Half of all 11 to 15 year olds had already tried an alcoholic drink with their friends, and half of all 16 and 17 year olds drank at least once per week.

If this sounds frightening, read on and learn more about how to encourage a more healthy and responsible attitude to drinking in your children and teenagers.

Risks of Drinking

Drinking alcohol in itself carries a fairly hefty risk. Long-term alcohol use may lead to liver damage, and heavy drinking is significantly more risky.

But those risks pale almost into insignificance besides those that are associated with alcohol use among young people:

  • Young people aged 14 and 15 who drink are more likely to engage in sexual activity. A significant minority, around 11% of 15 to 16 year olds, admit that they have had unprotected sex while drunk. This means that they risk not only pregnancy, but also sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS;
  • There are also links between heavy drinking and youth offending, teenage pregnancy, truancy and exclusion from school, although whether this is causal or simply a link is not clear;
  • Around one fifth of teenagers who drink at least once per week have been involved in a fight as a result of drinking.

Getting Hold of Alcohol

Despite the law, a good number of teenagers who have consumed alcohol have bought it themselves. This number rises with age.

  • Among 12 to 15 year olds, only around 10% have bought their own alcohol.
  • By the time they reach 16 or 17, almost two-thirds of teenagers have bought their own alcohol in pubs, bars or nightclubs.

‘Do as I say, not as I do…’?

Alcohol can be a difficult subject to discuss, especially if you tend to have a glass or two of wine or a beer yourself most evenings.

Your children will have absorbed the view that drinking is just fine, a thing that adults do as a normal part of life.

It is, however, important to help children to understand that although it is a normal part of life, and yes, it does help people to feel relaxed and happy, alcohol is still a drug.

Like any drug, taking too much can be dangerous.

Tips for Talking to Children About Alcohol

  • Start talking well before the teenage years

    Given that many 11 to 15 year olds had already tried alcohol, it is important to start talking about drinking early. Opportunities for casual conversation may arise, for example, if you see a TV character portrayed as drinking, or see a photo of a celebrity falling drunkenly over. These allow you to discuss perceptions and consequences of drinking naturally and casually.

  • Find a good time to talk

    This means NOT when your child is about to leave the house for an evening with friends. It is also a very bad idea to try to talk to them when they are drunk.

    It is easier if you already have open communication channels, and talk on a regular basis, for example, at mealtimes, or in the car. For more about this, see our page on Communicating with Teenagers.

  • Provide information, but don’t lecture them

    For example, it is helpful to explain about ‘safe’ levels of drinking. Many young people believe that ‘normal’ drinking is four to five glasses of wine, or several pints of beer. This is significantly more than the advice from the UK charity Alcohol Change.

    You need to equip your children with an understanding of the size of a ‘unit’ of alcohol (and remember, wine glasses vary considerably in size, so show them one that is a unit in size). They also need to know how many units per night, and per week, is considered safe and advisable. If you need advice about this, you may find the Drinkaware site useful.

    You also need to explain about safer drinking behaviour and encourage your children to engage in safe behaviour such as:

    • Pacing their drinking so that they do not take too much in a short space of time;
    • Having something to eat before they start drinking; and
    • Alternating alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks to slow the pace of their drinking.

  • Be honest

    Your children will not believe it is all bad if they have seen you drinking unscathed on a regular basis. Make sure that you are honest about your own drinking and the benefits that you derive from it, as well as the risks of binge drinking and long-term heavy drinking, and also the lapses in judgement that come with drinking.

  • Set rules if necessary

    While they are under 18, your children are your responsibility and it is fine to set out your rules about drinking alcohol. For example, you may say that they may have a glass of wine or beer when with you, at home, but you do not expect them to drink in the pub with friends. After all, the law says that they should not be bought or sold alcohol until they are 18.

  • Be ready to answer questions

    It sounds obvious, but questions may be raised at odd times, and in odd ways. A discussion about ‘What Sally does on Fridays…’ may well raise all kinds of questions and, if you are not listening, you will not be able to respond appropriately. Be alert to conversations that may not be quite what they seem.

    You may find it helpful to read our pages on Listening Skills.

  • Help them to think things through in advance

    Children and teenagers will come under pressure to have a drink, or another. They may also face different risks, such as being offered a lift by someone they know has been drinking. Talk to them about how they might respond and how they will behave. Thinking things through in advance gives them the chance to prepare, and to practise saying ‘no’ without offending.

    For more about this, see our pages on Assertiveness.

  • Make sure that they know how to stay safe

    For example, talk about the importance of looking after friends if they get drunk, and making sure that they get home safely. Also explain that drinks can be spiked, and how to avoid situations like that (always buying their own drinks, for example). They also need to be alert to potentially dangerous situations like fights, and how to walk away from them.

  • Be there if necessary

    Above all, your teenager needs to know that if they phone you in a crisis, or even just because they feel uncomfortable, you will come to the rescue. If they are so drunk that they can’t get a cab, be prepared to collect them at least once (though if the behaviour becomes a habit, you may need to have serious words).

    Emphasise that you may be angry, but you will always be there for them.

    If you think that they may have a drinking problem, you may need to take more action. For example, you may need some professional advice. Organisations like Relate offer advice for free via their website.

A Final Thought

It is important to accept that your teenager may not take your advice.

This is not personal. Sometimes we all need to try things for ourselves, and make our own mistakes - that's just part of growing up. The important thing is to be there if necessary to pick up the pieces.