Teens and alcohol: fostering healthy attitudes

Teens passing bottle of spirit at partyHelping your son or daughter develop a healthy attitude to alcohol is undoubtedly one of the most challenging aspects of parenting teenagers.

As is the case with most aspects of parenting, the best advice is to be prepared, so we've asked charity Alcohol Concern - and of course the Mumsnet Talk boards - for guidance on how to approach the matter.


What's the official line?

It is not illegal for a child aged between five and 16 to consume alcohol at home or on other private premises.

Sixteen- and 17-year-olds can also legally consume beer, wine or cider bought by someone over 18 if they are eating a table meal together in licensed premises.

The police can stop, fine or arrest anyone under 18 who is drinking in public.


Aside from the obvious, what are the risks of underage drinking?

The Chief Medical Officer advises that an alcohol-free childhood is the safest option, and that under-16s, ideally, should not drink at all.

Research indicates that the younger someone starts drinking, the more likely they are to have problems with alcohol in later life.

There has been a 117% increase in alcohol-related liver disease hospital admissions for under-30s in England in the last 10 years; drinking to excess is a problem for society long after teenagers have become adults. 

Alcohol can lead to disinhibition, which means when young people drink they are particularly vulnerable, because they're still testing the limits of what is acceptable behaviour in terms of them growing up.

Something else to be aware of is that alcohol takes longer to leave a young person's body, in comparison with adults. This means that if teens are consuming alcohol and then going to school the next day, it could affect their concentration and performance. Poor educational attainment is strongly linked to increased alcohol use.


What should happen at home?

Firstly, studies have shown that the home is often the main source of alcohol for underage drinkers, so as a parent you need to be aware of your children's access to alcohol and make conscious decisions about the extent to which you want to police it.

Secondly, though, it's important to bear in mind that, unsurprisingly, children's attitudes to drinking will be shaped by your own, and will be formed relatively early on. So - obviously far, far easier said than done - it really is crucial to try to set a good example yourself. This means keeping an eye on the number of units you're drinking, as well as having a few alcohol-free days each week.

Remember, too, that it's not just what or how much you're drinking – it's about what children associate alcohol with, such as emotions and occasions. Let children know - and remember, actions speak louder than words! - that alcohol isn't needed to have fun, and is not a solution to a problem. This should help prevent them from relating alcohol to feeling sad or stressed, and will also help them build their confidence to say no if they're ever under peer pressure to drink.

Finally, consider that it's not easy for young people to work out how to deal with alcohol; it's conspicuously advertised and available everywhere at pocket-money prices. The levels of exposure they have to alcohol means they will have many questions, and it's crucial to make sure you're available to answer them.


What do other parents do when their teens want to drink?

  • "When it comes to parties, I will only knowingly allow my teenagers to go to places I know are all supervised. The norm among their social circle is for parents to buy a case of weak beer and that is it. They also frisk everyone coming in, and check their property (including over the fence into their neighbours' gardens). Personally, I would be guided by the law and stick to that. No encouragement to drink under 18. I don't think you can go wrong."
  • "We never encouraged our DC to drink but gradually relaxed the rules from 16 to 18 so we could feel confident they could make the right decisions when they left for uni. We had one major over-indulgence incident with each of them and (as far as I know!) they are both fun-loving yet sensible young people."
  • "Because my DD is 14 I can dictate a no drink rule when her friends come round. It is interesting that they are still happy to come here, knowing that. I thought they might all want to go elsewhere, but I think some of them are happy not to be put under pressure to drink, which they would be if they were at some 'cooler' kid's house."
  • "Our 17-year-old daughter had a party for her birthday. We allowed alcohol to be brought to the party but didn't supply any ourselves (we emptied the drinks cupboard beforehand!) While I'm happy to allow my daughter to have a couple of cans of cider, I think it would be irresponsible of me to supply alcohol to other underage teens without their parents' consent. We told her we'd tolerate moderate drinking but if anyone got legless we'd ring their parents to pick them up and it would be the last party we'd allow. Everything went fine and I would do it again, but I do think you have to do it with some rules and not just allow a free-for-all."
  • "Don't buy under-16s alcohol - because then you're enabling it. You can't control what they do but you can send a consistent message. They can rebel and face the consequences. Kids will push boundaries and it's just your job to keep your boundaries clear."


Last updated: almost 3 years ago