Alcohol and parenting: children and teenagers

Maddy Lawson | March 2018 | 10 minutes

There’s so much confusing information around alcohol and parenting that parents can find it difficult to know what to do for the best. So, we’ve put together evidence-based advice and suggestions to help parents make informed decisions about alcohol.

Should I drink around my child?

Children learn as much from what you show them as what you tell them. There’s nothing wrong with drinking alcohol when your children are around, but it’s worth thinking about what you might be teaching them without realising.

If your children see that you seem to need alcohol to socialise, relax or de-stress, you might be sending out messages you don’t want them to pick up. That doesn’t mean that you have to be teetotal, but setting an example that you’d like your children to follow is a good general guide.

It’s also worth talking to them openly about your drinking – they might have questions from an earlier age than you’d think. Which leads us on to…

How should I talk to my child about drinking?

There’s strong evidence that a firm and consistent parenting style – setting clear boundaries for behaviour – can make children less likely to drink harmfully when they’re teenagers. This doesn’t mean you need to be an old-fashioned disciplinarian “Do as I say, because I say so,” probably won’t work. It’s important to be open with your children about why you’re setting boundaries, and recognise the difficulties of sticking to them. It might help to get together with the parents of your children’s friends and agree boundaries together.

Above all, work on maintaining an open, honest relationship with your children – one based on mutual respect and winning each other’s trust. Encourage your children to talk to you about where they’re going when they go out, what sort of things they get up to, and who their friends are. That way, you can spot any signs of possible problems. It’s also important to talk to them openly about your own drinking – see “Should I drink around my child?” above.

Should I allow my child to drink?

First of all, it’s important to understand the law here:

  • It’s illegal to give alcohol to any child under five.
  • Children under 16 are usually allowed in licensed premises with an adult (though a pub might make its own rules), but they can’t have any alcoholic drinks there.
  • It’s illegal to buy alcohol for anyone under 18 to drink in a pub or any other public place. The only exception is that young people aged 16 or 17 can drink beer, wine or cider bought by an accompanying adult to drink with a sit-down meal.

But that’s only part of the picture.

The UK’s Chief Medical Officers recommend that children shouldn’t drink alcohol until the age of 15 at the very earliest. That’s because young children’s bodies are particularly vulnerable to the effects of alcohol. Plus, if they drink from a young age they are more at risk of developing alcohol-related problems when they’re older.

There are risks for older teenagers too; parts of their brain are still growing (that’s why they sleep so much) and drinking alcohol could affect their ability to learn and remember.

Some parents of young teens think it’s important to introduce small amounts of alcohol before their child hits 18, to help them to learn to drink sensibly. Unfortunately, there’s no strong evidence that this works. On the contrary, research shows that the younger a person starts drinking, the more at risk they are of developing alcohol problems later in life.

Alcohol marketing and peer pressure are strong forces pushing teenagers to want to experiment with alcohol too, and as a parent that can feel overwhelming. But evidence shows that parents have a strong influence over their children’s drinking – even with older teenagers.

What should I do if I think I’m drinking too much?

If you’re worried that you may be drinking too much, the first thing to remember is not to blame yourself (or anyone else). There are all sorts of reasons that any of us might get into a habit of drinking too much or too often, and recognising that things might have got out of hand is the first step to getting back on track. If you’re concerned about your own drinking habits, there a few things you can try.

  1. Try keeping a drinks diary, jotting down how much you’re drinking, when, where, and maybe why. This will help you get a realistic picture of your drinking habits. It may also show you if some situations make you more inclined to drink. You might want to think about other ways you can manage those situations. Or, if it’s possible, you might want to avoid some of them. You can use our Dry January® app to do this.
  2. Consider taking more alcohol-free days each week. Drinking can easily become a habit if you don’t take regular breaks from it.
  3. Think about how much alcohol you keep in the house – if you’ve got it in the cupboard or the fridge, it’s all too easy to drink it. Most supermarkets have a much better range of alcohol-free drinks than a few years ago, so you could check those out when you’re shopping.
  4. If you go out (which may seem like a distance memory if you’ve got a small baby), don’t let other people pressure you into drinking more, and maybe avoid drinking in rounds

You can also try using our online alcohol AUDIT. If your AUDIT score is 15 or more, you may wish to discuss it with your GP or your local alcohol service, as you could benefit from cutting back. If your AUDIT score is 20 or more, you are at risk of becoming dependent on alcohol, and we would strongly advise you to speak to your GP or local alcohol service as soon as possible, to find out about your options for reducing your drinking.

Top tips

  • Try to ensure that your children have an alcohol-free childhood, at least up to the age of 15
  • Discuss with your children the pleasures and pitfalls of alcohol, and be honest about your own drinking – children can spot hypocrisy a mile off
  • Set consistent rules around drinking, and stick to them. Talking to the parents of your children’s friends and agreeing boundaries together might help
  • Be aware of your own drinking – are you setting an example that you’d want them to follow?
  • If you keep alcohol in the home, be aware of how accessible it is to your children