Are you a parent, guardian or carer looking to have a conversation with your children about alcohol? On this page, you’ll find lots of useful information on the risks associated with children drinking alcohol, along with tips and advice on how to talk to your child. It’s never too early or late to have a chat with your children about underage drinking. In fact, research shows that meaningful conversations about drinking alcohol involving parents and their children can support the development of a sensible relationship with drink throughout life.
Why do children drink alcohol?
Young children may copy how they see other people behave at home. This continues as they grow older. For example, if you come home and say, ‘I could do with a drink!’ you may be setting the example that alcohol is an essential part of life.
Young people going through puberty can act impulsively showing strong emotions and a desire to be thrilled. It’s why young people take risks even if they know they shouldn’t.
Whether it’s on social media or on TV, young people see examples of people drinking alcohol everywhere these days. This teaches young people that it is normal behaviour in our society and this could make them want to try drinking.
Teenagers aren’t children so they may feel they need to prove it. You might have said drinking is for adults, so they might try and show they are adult enough to drink.
Children will always push the limits you set. This is not because they want you to let them have their own way but because they need you to say no. Other times, their pushing is a sign that it’s time to speak to them again about the rules.
From a very early age children want to fit in. If drinking is seen to be normal, your children may want to join to feel part of the crowd.
We’d like to think our children don’t have problems but even young children can feel stress with friends, school and family and they might feel alcohol could be a solution to combat that stress. They also might hear you saying you need a drink to unwind.
The influence of siblings is powerful. A younger child will often want to act like their older brother or sister, and if they see them drinking alcohol they might want to try it too.
Understanding the risks
It’s important that you and your children recognise the risks of drinking underage. As a young person’s body is developing it will be affected by alcohol differently than a mature adult.
There are many reasons why we should talk to our children about drinking alcohol. The sooner we do it the better but it’s never too late.
Very young children
It is illegal to give a child under five alcohol. By the time a child is aged five, research shows they have already formed basic attitudes and opinions about alcohol. If you drink at home, your children are bound to ask questions at an early age about what you are drinking and what it tastes like. It is tempting to say ‘wait until you are older’, but it is worth explaining to your child that little bodies can’t digest alcohol, which is ‘strong’ so they should wait until they are older.
Young children look up to their parents and will listen to what you say. Although teenagers may make their friends their focus, they still need you.
Older children may say that you don’t understand how they feel and they will just ignore your advice. However they may still pay attention to what you have said to them and how you feel about it.
Someone else will
If you don’t talk to your children, then someone else will. There are a number of people who will answer your child’s questions about alcohol. Saying nothing doesn’t mean your child’s questions go away. It just means they may go to someone else for answers.
Health and success
Preventing your children from drinking will more likely lead to health and success. Underage drinking really can have an impact on the rest of your child’s life. Even if they have already tried alcohol, you can still help to delay it happening again.
Questions and answers
What to say and when to say it
Children’s attitudes to alcohol will change over time, so here’s a quick guide of what to say to children at different ages. Remember it’s never too early to start talking about drinking and never too late to catch up. Don’t wait for the issue of alcohol to come up; you should start the conversation and talk through what’s acceptable and what rules you want to put in place.
Tips for an effective conversation
Here are some tips on how to have an effective chat with your child about alcohol.
Many parents can dread their kids asking them if they drank alcohol underage or asking them about how much they drink now. If they do ask those questions, it is far better to be honest with them. You should talk about the pleasures and the risks of drinking alcohol.
Find out how much they already know
Never think you know exactly how much your child understands about alcohol. Talking to them is the best way to find out how much they know.
Get the timing right
It can help to have a chat in a place where you both feel comfortable. Chatting over a shared meal around a table or on a car journey can be a good time.
Get the tone right
Make it a two-way conversation rather than a lecture. Listening as much as you talk encourages young people to pay attention and can encourage them to tell you more about the situation too.
Use conversation triggers
A soap storyline or the latest celebrity scandal involving drink can be a good way to start a conversation about alcohol.
Practical ways of delaying teenage drinking
Research shows that the younger a person is when they start to drink regularly, the greater their risk of alcohol-related problems later in life. By highlighting the short term effects of getting drunk, such as being sexually assaulted or robbed, plus the embarrassment of looking a fool in front of their mates, you can help delay the age that teenagers start drinking and the amount they consume. This is more effective than just saying ‘don’t’ or using scare tactics.
These tips should help:
- Encourage sports, hobbies, clubs and social activities that keep your children on the go and rewarded.
- Teenagers say boredom and hanging around with nothing to do is a reason for drinking. Encourage them to get a holiday job or volunteer.
- Set up routines, like mealtimes, that mean you can spend some time together and to talk to each other.
- Make sure you know the facts and laws about alcohol and can talk in a fair and positive way about the pros and cons of drinking.
- Talk and listen to your teenager. It is important that they hear your views and that you hear theirs. Use everyday events, for example a storyline in a TV programme, as a prompt.
- Make sure the ground rules are clear, discuss them with all family members, and be clear about what is allowed and not allowed.
- Have consequences for breaking rules and enforce them such as stopping their allowance or grounding them.
- If your teenager is going to a party, drop them off and pick them up or book a taxi. Agree the time they will be leaving the party. Your kids will hate it, but always check sleepover and party plans – ring other parents and check who’s in charge.
- Check where they’re going and who they’re with, and always make sure they’ve got a fully charged mobile with them and they keep it on. Be careful where you leave alcohol in the house.
- Know how much you have and check it regularly. If you are away for the night it is unfair to your teenagers to leave them in a situation where they have access to a large supply of drink.
- Supervise parties at home and always serve food.
- Be careful how invitations and photos are posted via social media sites and ensure that there is adult supervision of parties in friends’ homes.
It is important to be clear on the law around alcohol and children.
The UK Chief Medical Officers recommend that an alcohol-free childhood is the healthiest and best option.
If you’re under 18 and drinking alcohol in public, you can be stopped, fined or arrested by police.
It is against the law:
- to sell alcohol to someone under 18 anywhere
- for someone under 18 to buy or try to buy alcohol
- for an adult to buy or try to buy alcohol on behalf of someone under 18
- for someone under 18 to drink alcohol in licensed premises (e.g. a pub or restaurant), except where the child is 16 or 17 and accompanied by an adult. In this case, it is legal for them to drink (but not buy) beer, wine or cider with a meal
- to give alcohol to children under five.
It is not illegal:
- for a child aged 5 to 16 to drink alcohol at home or on other private premises
- for someone over 18 to buy a child over 16 beer, wine or cider if they are eating at a table meal together in a licensed premises
- for children aged 16 to go to a pub (or premises primarily used to sell alcohol) if accompanied by an adult. However, this isn’t always the case. It can also depend on the specific conditions for that premises and the licensable activities taking place there.
Can I let my kids drink at home?
- Some parents allow their children to try a little alcohol with them on special occasions; others prefer not to. There is some evidence that shows drinking at an earlier age increases the possibility of alcohol-related harm later on, but other studies show young people introduced to drinking moderately in the home, with good parental role models are less likely to binge and more likely to develop moderate drinking habits. Remember, there is a world of difference between sips on special occasions and whole drinks, so the UK Chief Medical Officers (CMO) recommend that parents should not allow their children to drink alcohol at home under the age of 15.
- Whatever you decide, stick with it and make sure your child understands why it can be dangerous for young people to drink. Be prepared to say NO if you are uncomfortable with party situations and lay down ground rules.
- Children should also know that there are laws restricting the age at which you can buy and drink alcohol.
- With older teenagers, you need to aim for a balance: warning them of the dangers and making them aware of the law; but also saying that they can enjoy moderate social drinking when they’re adults if they choose to. The important thing is to focus on the facts, and to give your child the knowledge and skills to avoid the dangers associated with alcohol.
Your own drinking
Children can also learn about alcohol in the home so it’s a good idea to think about your own drinking.
Do you know your sensible drinking guidelines? You’ve probably heard of units and that both men and women shouldn’t regularly drink more than 14 units a week and that these 14 units should be spread evenly over at least 3 days.
But there’s no such thing as a safe limit. And units add up quicker than you think. There are around 6 units in a couple of pints and 3 in a large glass of wine.
It’s 1 unit per single measure for spirits. So if you have a pint of lager and a whisky, that’s already 4 units. And by regularly having more than the sensible drinking guidelines you increase your risk of liver problems, heart disease, and even cancer.
Is it OK to drink in front of my child?
Research shows that from a young age children learn about acceptable behaviour by watching and copying their parents. So when it comes to drinking, it really is a case of leading by example. There’s evidence that children whose parents drink a small amount of alcohol in front of them are less likely to drink too much alcohol themselves.
You can follow these simple tips to show your own responsible attitude to drinking.
If you do drink too much every now and again and have a hangover, don’t try and hide the symptoms. Instead talk openly to your child about how you’re feeling. This way they know too much alcohol can have bad outcomes.
Drink within the weekly unit guidelines. This shows your child that adults can enjoy alcohol in small amounts.
If you drink, don’t feel guilty for telling your children they can’t. Instead, explain that alcohol is only for adults because their bodies have finished growing. But even adults still have rules about how much they can drink.
Children notice if their parents have different drinking patterns at special occasions or on holiday. To avoid confusing them, keep talking to them and explain that you normally stick to the weekly unit guidelines.
How alcohol affects the body
Click on the different body parts for more information:
Other useful contacts
General advice on alcohol
- The Dudley borough Let’s Talk Drink website has more information on alcohol and its effects. Visit www.letstalkdrink.com
- Drinkaware offers a range of information, tips and advice about alcohol including downloadable resources such as factsheets and leaflets, as well as practical tools such as unit measure cups and unit and calorie calculators. Visit www.drinkaware.co.uk
- If you need to talk to someone about your drinking, you can contact Atlantic Recovery Centre, Lye, Dudley on 01384 426120
For young people
- Visit the Dudley borough website www.thinkalcohol.com or www.talktofrank.com, they both have sections with advice and information about alcohol and young people
- Drug and alcohol services
- If you think your child is drinking too much, contact SWITCH on 01384 241440
- Family Lives is a national charity providing help and support in all aspects of family life. Visit www.familylives.org.uk or call Family Lives 24/7 Parentline advice line on 0808 800 2222.
- To talk to other parents about how they deal with talking to their children about alcohol you can visit the forum pages at www.mumsnet.com, www.netmums.com or www.dad.info
YoungMinds provides information and advice on young people and mental health. Visit www.youngminds.org.uk or call 020 7089 5050.