Underage drinking: the facts and how to talk about alcohol with your children

Beer bottles

There are all sorts of myths out there about young people and drinking – but the facts are often very different from the fiction

More and more young people are choosing not to drink or to drink less, but as a parent at some point you will inevitably have to have the alcohol chat. If your child was to ask you about alcohol, would you know all the facts?

Being clear on the law around alcohol is important – for both parents and children. So, what are the facts? What age are they legally allowed to drink? Should they have that glass of Bucks Fizz on Christmas Day? And what about outside the home – if you're all out for dinner, are they allowed a glass of wine with the meal? What impact does drinking alcohol have on the developing human body and mind?

When can children drink at home?

Children and parents are advised that an alcohol-free childhood is the healthiest and best option but legally, children aged five and over can drink alcohol in the home or private premises while supervised by an adult, surprising as that may be. However, parents are advised by the Chief Medical Officer for England against allowing their children to drink until they're at least 15 years old.

If young people aged between 15 and 17 do drink alcohol, it should always be with the consent and guidance of a parent or carer in a supervised environment, and it shouldn't happen more than once a week. Young people should never exceed the recommended adult weekly alcohol limits (14 units a week), and should ideally drink less than that amount.

In Scotland, the Scottish Chief Medical Officer's advice is that an alcohol-free childhood is the best option and in Wales, children under 15 shouldn't drink alcohol at all.

Are children allowed to drink alcohol outside the home?

If a person is under 18 and drinking alcohol in public, they can be stopped, fined or arrested by police. If they're under 18, it's against the law:

  • For someone to sell them alcohol
  • For them to buy or try to buy alcohol
  • For an adult to buy alcohol for them
  • To drink alcohol in licensed premises (eg a pub or restaurant)

However, if someone is 16 or 17 and accompanied by an adult, they can drink – but not buy – beer, wine or cider with a meal. This means that alcopops are not allowed as these are spirit-based.

If they’re 16 or under, they may be able to go to a pub (or premises primarily used to sell alcohol) if they’re accompanied by an adult. However, this isn’t always the case. It can also depend on:

  • The specific conditions for that premises
  • The licensable activities taking place there
  • The licensee themselves who have the right to refuse entry to their premises to anyone at anytime without having to give a reason

New research from Drinkaware shows that 62% of 13 to 17 year olds would talk to their parents about alcohol – only 50% said they'd consult the internet*. So rather than avoiding the elephant (or in this case, the can or bottle of alcohol) in the room, try and strike up a conversation with your children about it.

Top tips for talking about underage drinking with your children

  1. Choose conversational triggers: try and find a 'hook'; a recent film or TV storyline, even stories about family and friends – ask 'what do you think?' and let the conversation flow from there.
  2. Get the tone right: make it a conversation rather than a lecture – listen as much as you talk and this will encourage your children to pay attention and open up. Try to not come across as judgmental or critical – try and put yourselves in their shoes.
  3. Get the timing right: if they're going out the door to meet friends, heading to bed after a long day in school or already halfway through an argument, then forget about it. Bringing it up in those kind of circumstances will only lead to tears, tantrums and door slamming. Broach the subject when you're both calm and relaxed and make it part of an on-going conversation.
  4. Be honest: It’s far better to confess, for example, that “yes, I drank at your age – and I wish I hadn’t. If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have.” And if their questions get uncomfortable, say so.
  5. Set rules: Young people like to push boundaries and test rules – that’s part of being a teenager. But the fact is that they feel safer if there are guidelines. Have clear rules and have sanctions for breaking them.

Mumsnetters' advice for talking to your children about alcohol

  • “Tell them that you care about them and don't want them to come to any harm. You want to know they are safe and can call you night or day if anything happens.”
  • “I plan to let my 15-year-old son have one drink at his brother's 18th party and I'll let him have one at Christmas and NYE but I wouldn't encourage it as a regular thing.”
  • “I think keeping communication going is so important and providing some sort of structure. If you refuse totally you run the risk of total rebellion.”
  • “My son was at parties where alcohol was smuggled in, he was 14/15. Tempted as I was to go ballistic, I just dealt with it – explained the dangers and told him to try and avoid spirits.”
  • “I think it's important to spell out possible consequences of drinking. Getting drunk and sick are obvious, but young people don't always know that alcohol can make some otherwise gentle/quiet people turn violent. And that it also loosens inhibitions if the opposite sex are involved.”

For more advice and information on how to answer difficult questions about alcohol visit Drinkaware

*Ipsos MORI (2016) Drinkaware Monitor 2016: Teenage drinking and the role of parents and guardians.