Underage drinking

When and how do you get talking about alcohol?

On average, UK children have their first whole alcoholic drink at just aged 13, and this is overwhelmingly in a family setting, as it should be, there is however, a world of difference between sips on special occasions and whole drinks.

Medical guidance, is that an alcohol free childhood until the age of at least 15 is advised, and this is for very good reasons, as teenagers brains and livers are not fully developed, so they cannot break down alcohol. Alcohol has more of an effect so the risk of accidents and injury to themselves or others is high, and perhaps most importantly exam predictions suffer, falling by 20 points among those who drink weekly, that’s the difference between an A* and a C. Underage drinking has halved in England over the last decade, with 62% of 11 -1 5 year olds saying they haven’t even tried alcohol and the number of 15 year olds drinking weekly has fallen to 10%. Even among 16 -24 year olds just 18% binge drink regularly, contrary to what the media tell us, so teenagers are much better behaved than in our day! The key thing to remember as parents or carers however, is the more relaxed we are about alcohol in the home, the more likely our kids are to drink outside of it, at parties and in public places, and that’s where risk taking is most likely to happen.

Why is age 13 too young?

The Chief Medical Officers tells us parents that young people should wait until at least age 15 and an alcohol free childhood is best. This is because the more relaxed you are about alcohol, the more likely your child is to drink outside of the home. The same amount of alcohol has a much greater effect on the body and organs of a child or young person than on an adult, because their bodies (especially their brains and liver) are still growing and developing.

As parents, the longer we can delay the age of drinking outside of the home, the more likely our kids are to escape the risks around drinking.










When and how to talk about alcohol

Just 1% of 11 year olds think it is okay to get drunk or have been drunk, but by age 13 teenagers are looking more towards their peers and friends, so it’s important to get talking. Children as young as seven can recognise the difference between relaxed social drinking and drunkenness too, so we have to set a good example ourselves!. Obviously the approach depends on the age of our children, but don’t leave it too late, age 11 is a great time to start talking, up to age 13, depending on the nature of your child and keep the conversation going.

Try to make the conversation natural, using something like a TV programmes and magazines can be a good place to start. If a celebrity has been photographed drunk after a night out, talk to your child about their perception of this, and whether they think it's glamorous or embarrassing. It’s an important conversation to have. "I use soaps, like Hollyoaks or Eastenders, to talk about how alcohol can alter characters' personalities and cause them to regret their actions when drunk," says Sarah Kelly, 45, from Staines, Kent, mum to Louise, 16 and Kate, 14. Car journeys are great too, as your child can avoid eye contact, and they can’t escape.

Explain why alcohol can be dangerous and what problems it can cause, without demonising it. Teaching moderation is the key, says Helena Conibear, of the charity The Alcohol Education Trust. Research shows some teenagers believe five glasses per night is normal, but this is bingeing and represents a dangerous level. Discuss alcohol measurements, and how to keep track of what is and isn't a safe level of consumption. You can use the www.alcoholeducationtrust.org  website for tips, information and advice on talking to teens about alcohol. There are some fun games and quizzes you can do together too via www.talkaboutalcohol.com 

  • Find a relaxed time when you can both chat, such as when you are giving them a lift, or watching TV rather than when they are half way out the door or with their friends.
  • Talk about how they may feel or what they may do under pressure, in difficult situations such as being offered a drink, or being offered a lift home by a friend who has been drinking.
  • Talk openly and honestly about the potential dangers of binge drinking. Make it an inclusive discussion, not a lecture.
  • If you do drink, be honest about your own choices, rather than just presenting the negatives.
  • Talk about how alcohol can influence people's judgement and help them to think through how it might feel to regret something the next day.
  • Make them aware of drinks being spiked and how to avoid putting themselves in vulnerable situations. Encourage them and their friends to look out for each other.
  • Explore how alcohol affects people in different ways, and how it can make some people aggressive and violent. Talk through ways of keeping safe and walking away from trouble.
  • Ensure your teen knows that, no matter how angry you may be with them, you are there for them, and that they can call you if someone gets hurt or they are worried about something.
  • Try not to take it personally or feel downhearted if they don't take your advice. Sometimes teens have to make their own mistakes to realise that what you have said is true. 

Will they listen to me?

You may think they don’t listen,  but 70% of children ages 8 to 17 say their parents are the number one influence on whether they drink alcohol. Parents weren’t seen by most teenagers as good role models, or set ground rules that they stuck to. Only 21% said their parents were good role models. 55% of young people say that their school provides clear rules but only 27% say they have to abide by clear rules and consequences in their family, or that their parents keep track of where they are. So what can you do? There are some really practical ways to delay teenage drinking. 

  • Encourage sports, hobbies, clubs and social activities that keep your kids busy. Kids say hanging around with nothing to do is a key reason for drinking.
  • If you work, try and share child care with friends during holidays, could they volunteer? Odd jobs for friends? Public places such as parks or the beach is where young people drink outside of the home (other than at private parties).
  • Make sure that you know the facts and laws about alcohol and can talk in a balanced way about the pros and cons of drinking, then you’ll be more equipped to talk and listen to your teenager and to understand the pressures they’re facing from their peers and wanting to fit in.
  • Make sure that the house rules are clear, agree them together and what will happen if they are broken, they should change as they mature and you feel they can be trusted more too.
  • If your teenager is going to a party, drop them off and pick them up, or book a taxi. It’s hard to hide having had too much to drink and it shortens the time spent at the party. Try and avoid sleepovers after parties in particular.
  • Although your teenager will hate it, check where they are going and who they are with and if their plans are genuine.
  • Be careful where you leave alcohol in the house. 

If I don’t give my teen alcohol, wont they get something worse from somewhere else? 

Some parents argue that if they don’t give their teenagers alcohol to go to parties, then they will ask their friends or peers to buy it for them. Due to proof of age verification, it’s almost impossible for under 18’s to buy alcohol themselves, and it they ask their friends (even if over 18) to buy alcohol for them, they’re asking them to break the law and risk a fine. This is called ‘buying by proxy’, so it is often parents and close family members who are the main suppliers of alcohol. As parents, we really are key, teenagers say themselves that we define how much and at what age they begin drinking. 

Aside from the health risks associated with underage drinking, drinking to get drunk (40% of 15 year olds say they’ve been drunk at least once) means many teens are risking their sexual health. Experts say 14 and 15 year olds who drink are more likely to engage in sexual activity with 11% of 15 to 16 year olds admitting to unprotected sex while drunk. These are not the only problems. Helena Conibear of The Alcohol Education Trust says: "There are strong links between drinking high levels of alcohol and youth offendingteenage pregnancytruancy and exclusion from school." Nearly half of all 10 to 17 years olds who drink once a week or more admit to some sort of criminal activity or disorderly behaviour, around two-thirds get into an argument and about a fifth get into a fight.

Helping teens make sensible choices with alcohol 

Research shows that lots of teenagers are exposed to alcohol and that this often happens outside of the home. With that in mind, the best thing a parent can do to prevent underage drinking is to talk and listen to teenagers in a way that encourages them to behave more responsibly. Get the message across that, while alcohol is a part of life and can make people feel nice and relaxed, it's still a drug and too much at once can be dangerous.  

Teach your child about sensible drinking, pacing drinks, alternating alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks and always eating a decent meal before drinking. Warn them how easy it is to go over their limits, make a fool of themselves and compromise their safety or do something they might regret later. Offer your child the chance to ask any questions so they can come to you if they ever need any help. As they get older, remind them to always keep their mobile fully charged and to let you, or someone outside of their friendship group know where they are going, they should always plan how they are going to get home before they go out and keep enough money aside to get home safely. Finally, drink spiking is a real risk, so they should never leave their drink unattended or accept drinks from someone they do not know well. 

Bearing in mind that the key place where teenagers drink is at parties, so think seriously before agreeing to host a party (especially for those under 16) for your teenager yourself. If you do feel happy, then these tips will help it go well. 

  • Agree the list of invites with your teenager. Don’t make the party too long
  • Warn your teen about how they invite their friends – no open invitations on social media
  • Agree the house rules and put your teen in charge
  • You might have to stay out of sight for you kids street cred, but stick around
  • Provide plenty of food – not salty snacks, but carbs
  • Teenagers do sneak in alcohol in water bottles, mixed with soft drinks etc, so be prepared and work out how you’ll handle this
  • Have loads of soft drinks and iced water available
  • If anyone is sick or ill, contact their parents and never leave them unattended
  • Try and avoid big sleepovers, as the kids won’t get much sleep (or you probably) and you won’t know what’s going on once you’re in bed
  • Finally, make sure you’ve warned your neighbours and have a reasonable finish time, allowing parents to pick up and get to bed too
  • If it goes well, don’t forget to tell your teen how proud you are of them and their mates

Going to parties 

Speak to the host parents, even if you don’t know them. Tell your child you’re not prepared to let them go otherwise. Check an adult will be present and their policy on alcohol. If you can, drop your teenager off and pick them up, or share lifts with parents you trust.

If sleeping over after a party at another friend’s house, check plans are genuine and again speak to the parents. Ask your child to ring or text you when they’re safely at their friends house. Make sure your teenager has had a good meal before they go out.

Check they have a fully charged mobile that they must keep on, and that you have planned how and what time they are getting home. Be prepared to say no if you’re unhappy about a party or if your child doesn’t want you to speak to the host. There may be rows, but remember that this is because you care, not because you are being a killjoy. Offer an alternative treat instead to soften the blow.

Don’t feel pressured by younger teens to provide them with alcohol to take with them to parties or threaten you that they’ll ask their mates to buy it for them instead (explain they risk their friend being fined or charged). If your teen breaks your agreement, such as what time to be home, then make sure you carry out any consequences, such as grounding them or taking phone away.

Setting a good example

Parents' drinking habits are an important factor in the way children experience alcohol. Almost half (49%) of 16 and 17 year-olds questioned by Drinkaware charity said they had seen their parents drunk, and therefore think this approach to booze is normal. A recent Finnish study found that where parents drank a lot, their teenagers tended to as well either following their parent's example or because drinking made the parent more lax in monitoring their children's comings and goings, and more heavy-handed in disciplining them. That, in turn, increased the children's likelihood of drinking and getting drunk.

Look at your own behaviour around drink. Do you come home from work and reach for a bottle? Drink every day? Only feel relaxed with a glass in your hand? These gestures send a powerful message to your children, so try and cut down. Start by checking out the Drinkaware drink diary. Also: "Have three alcohol-free days a week," advises Dr Nick Sheron, liver specialist at Southampton University School of Medicine. "Not drinking mid-week automatically cuts down your units and reduces all alcohol-associated health risks." There is a drink calculator and drink diary via www.drinkaware.co.uk to help you keep trach of your drinking

For any concerns about call our confidential helpline on 0808 800 2222.










 This article was updated and written by the Alcohol Education Trust. Their vision is for young people to enter adulthood having a healthy relationship with alcohol. 

This page was updated on 20 February 2017

underage drinking

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