Underage drinking

10min read

On average, UK children have their first whole alcoholic drink at just aged 13, and often in a family setting, as it should be, there is however, a world of difference between sips on special occasions and regular drinking. Medical guidance, is that an alcohol free childhood until the age of at least 15 is advised, 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. 

Key Points:

  • Talk to your teen about their drinking. 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
  • Make your teen 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
  • 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

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.  

Talking to teens 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. 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. 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. 

  • 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 teens 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. 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. 

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. 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 they are 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 Drinkaware to help you keep trach of your drinking.

Further resources 

If you are worried about your teenager's drinking, please do get in touch with The Alcohol Education Trust. It may help to chat to other parents on our forums to find out how they are dealing with this issue within their family life. You can also talk to us online via our live chat service, email us at askus@familylives.org.uk or call us on our helpline on 0808 800 2222 to speak to trained family support worker. 

This article was written by the Alcohol Education Trust.