Teen Drinking

It's the 'socially acceptable' drug... but what do you do when your child starts drinking to excess? How can you talk to them about alcohol without shutting them out or losing their trust?

Teenagers and alcohol

“Thank goodness my child doesn’t do drugs,” you sigh with relief. But are you overlooking the dangers of alcohol?

Our society is full of mixed messages about alcohol. We tell our children not to drink but then spend Friday night at the pub with friends. Unlike ‘hard drugs’, alcohol is considered socially acceptable – as long as you don’t over-indulge.

But this attitude could be dangerous. In 2004 just under a quarter of British 11-15 year olds had drunk alcohol in the previous week. Although the actual number of children drinking has changed very little, today’s children are drinking twice as much than they did 10 years ago – more than 10 drinks each week (compared with five in 1994).

So why do children drink?

Most children have their first alcoholic drink around the age of 12. Young people, particularly boys, drink to show their maturity and independence, and first sips are often had with parents. By ages 14-15, adolescent drinking becomes more secretive, and children tend to experiment with alcohol and hide it from their parents. By 16-17 they see themselves as ‘responsible drinkers’ who know their limits and don’t need to try as hard to hide their behaviour.

Your attitudes are more powerful than you think: studies show that when parents disapprove and set boundaries, children are less likely to drink. When parents are permissive, children are likely to drink more.

Excessive drinking can have devastating effects on people at every age, but young people are even more at risk. Children need far less alcohol to have the same effects as adults, and those who drink are more likely to engage in risky and violent behaviour. Even moderate drinking can cause short and long term damage to the young, growing brain. Long term risks from alcohol abuse include cancer, high blood pressure and liver disease.

Some studies have shown that the earlier children start drinking, the more likely they are to develop problems with alcohol. But parents need to be realistic – a total alcohol ban may encourage risky or secretive behaviour. Teach your children the realities and dangers of alcohol and build up their self esteem with praise and open communication. If you fear your child may be drinking to excess, talk about it with them and seek professional help from your GP or local support group.

Tips for parents

  • Be a good role model. Surprisingly, parents’ drinking habits actually have a greater impact on their child’s use of alcohol than a child’s friends. If you display a healthy attitude towards alcohol, it’s more likely your child will too. 
  • Teach your child the dangers of alcohol from an early age. Talk about peer pressure and why people drink – the good and bad reasons. 
  • Think about why your child is drinking. Could family or school problems, low self esteem or bullying be an issue? 
  • If your child comes home drunk, or has begun to drink to excess, don’t choose that moment to discuss drinking. Concentrate on getting them safely to bed and wait until the next day. 
  • Find a time when you are both relaxed – perhaps while driving or eating a meal, and chat honestly about drinking – the effects and dangers. Talk about peer pressure and encourage them to be open with you about their behaviour. 
  • Teach your child about sensible drinking – pacing drinks, alternating alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks and always eating a decent meal before drinking. 
  • Drinking alcohol is closely linked to unprotected and early sex in young people. Make sure your child understands how alcohol impairs people’s judgement and talk about how it would feel to regret something the next day. 
  • Talk to your child about the dangers of drink driving and plan alternative ways of getting home before they leave the house. 
  • Make sure your child knows that no matter how angry or disappointed you may be, you are always there for them – and they can share their concerns with you or call if someone gets hurt.

Related links

  • Peer Pressure: Whether they have fallen in with the ‘wrong crowd’, or started dressing like a slob, peer pressure may be partly to blame for your teenager’s behaviour. The Supernanny team has some simple ways you can support your child.
  • Teenage Drug Abuse - a Mum's story: When Sylvia from Newcastle discovered that her two eldest sons were using drugs she blamed herself….
  • Video Diary: Communication is the key to understanding older children's behaviour. As seen on Supernanny, a Video Diary could help get you and your child talking again...
  • Could My Child Have an Eating Disorder? In this article, beat, the national support organisation for people with eating disorders, shows how parents can support their children and help to treat an eating disorder, one small step at a time…

Find out more

  • Alcohol Concern is the national agency on alcohol misuse with excellent information on alcohol and related issues.
  • Drinkline is the The National Alcohol Helpline which provides counselling to those who are worried about their own or others' drinking. Calls are confidential: 0800 917 8282, 9.00am - 11.00pm, Monday to Friday.
  • Talk to Frank is a free, 24 hour drug helpline with information and advice for parents and teens. Call 0800 77 66 00 or email frank@talktofrank.com.

Related Advice