How to answer questions about underage drinking

Your children will ask questions about alcohol from a very early age. Many parents are unsure how to respond but it’s important not to avoid the subject. Evidence shows meaningful conversations about alcohol between parents and their children can help the child develop a sensible relationship with drink(1)(2). If you make it clear that their questions are welcome and you try to answer them, they’ll keep coming back. You don’t have to cover everything at once; you’re more likely to have a greater impact on your child’s decisions about drinking if you have a number of chats. Think of this as part of an ongoing conversation.
 
The advice in this section will help prepare you for the questions that your child may ask about alcohol so you can frame the conversation. They are of course only suggestions, use what you feel comfortable with and adapt the advice to your own parenting style.

So how should you talk to them?

It’s never too early to start talking about drinking and never too late to catch up

You may think because your child is not drinking yet it’s too soon to talk to them about alcohol. But many children experiment with alcohol early on and parents need to build a package of skills to be able to discuss, negotiate, draw boundaries and make rules around alcohol. Your children should feel able to come to you for help without fearing you’ll fly off the handle. Sometimes you might have to say “I’m upset at this but we won't talk about it now – let’s sort the problem and deal with it calmly tomorrow.”

Don’t react, act

Most parents wait until the issue of alcohol comes up rather than dealing with it proactively. 80% of parents say they’ll “deal with it when it happens”(3). The problem is that by the time it happens, it’s often too late and you’re not prepared. You may say one thing, your partner another and your children’s friends will have their own opinions. It really pays to have a plan, to have sorted it out between you, even if you and the other parent live apart. Talk through what rules and boundaries you’d like to put in place and what you will say.

Don’t react – act! That way you can gradually introduce the subject and take the initiative. When it does happen, you’ll already have made some points and be ready for more.

Get the tone right

In finding out what they know the first step to getting the tone right is to make it a conversation rather than a lecture. Listening as much as you talk encourages young people to pay attention and open up too. It’s really important that you don’t come across as judgmental, critical or disapproving of what they say. What we convey comes across in more than our words alone:

  • Our tone of voice can say we’re interested and respectful, or belittling and demanding.
  • Facial expressions and body language – how you hold yourself – can make a difference. A smile and eye contact says we’re receptive.
  • Cross your arms and legs and, whether you realise it or not, you come across as defensive and hostile. If they’re uncrossed you come across as open to what they say.
  • One helpful technique is ‘mirroring’ – when you copy the stance of the person with whom you're talking. We often fall into it when we’re on the same wavelength and doing it consciously gives the other person the reassurance we are.       
Get the timing right

Talking about important issues such as drinking needs to be done at the right time. Starting a discussion just as they’re going out the door to school or to meet friends, or before bed, or in the middle of an argument about other things, only leads to conflict. Chatting over a shared meal around a table can be a good time. One strategy that often works with a one-to-one talk is to use a timer to give first young people and then the adult a chance to have two minutes uninterrupted time to make their case while the other listens.

Choose a neutral location

Making eye contact can be vital for good communication but funnily enough thrashing over difficult issues can be easier if you're not facing each other. Sitting side by side in a car or on the sofa, while you're cooking or washing up, can take the heat out of the situation. Kids will often bring up important things when you’re doing something, and that’s why. The trick is to realise this is a vital moment and give them your full attention without eyeballing them. It can also help to be on neutral territory. Cornering them in their room may make them feel trapped and invaded, being in the living room may feel as if you’ve got the high ground. Neutral territory, such as while out, walking to the shops, or in a cafe, can relax everyone. 

Use conversation triggers

If they haven’t brought up the subject begin yourself, now. You might get the classic “Oh Muuuum!” if you launch into a prepared speech so find a ‘hook’. A soap storyline, a recent film or TV drama, the latest celebrity scandal involving drink, even gossip about family or friends – simply ask “What do you think?” and follow on from what they say. 

Be honest

Many parents can dread their kids asking if they drank at their age or questioning the amount they drink now. Adults don’t want to come across as hypocritical or get caught out saying one thing and having done another. If you're not honest they won’t believe a thing you tell them. 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. “You’re making me face up to the fact that I should look at what I drink now. I might need to cut down.”

Set Rules

Young people like to push boundaries and flout rules – that’s part of being a teenager. But the fact is that they feel safer if there are guidelines. All the evidence shows that in families where there are rules about drinking, young people are more likely to drink responsibly(4).  Have clear rules and havesanctions for breaking them.

Try this exercise:

Young people stick to rules better if they’ve had a hand in making them. Given the chance, they can be far more sensible and reasonable than you might imagine. Call a family meeting and come up with drinking rules together. Pose the issue – what rules are we agreeing about drinking? In the first stage everyone can suggest whatever they like. Write it all down and then thrash it over. You can have a veto on some suggestions, but it’s worth noting if you give way on some you're more likely to get agreement on others. Discuss punishments too, and when it’s all agreed, write it down and stick your rules on a notice board where you can all see them and refer to them. 

Empower them to make decisions

Feeling ‘empowered’ really does work. The more you encourage your children to make decisions for themselves the better choices they are likely to make. Feeling that they can manage difficult situations and make choices builds resilience – the state of mind that says they can solve problems rather than being one. Saying “You’re not joining your friends and drinking!” might be less effective than “I can understand you want to be with your friends. You know the dangers of alcohol. What could we do to make it easier for you not to drink?”

Try this exercise

Young people want so badly to feel grown up. Telling them alcohol is ‘adults only’ can make them feel if they drink it would prove they are adult. You could praise their growing maturity and acknowledge that yes indeed they aren’t children anymore. You could then point out the reasons why there are different levels of safe drinking.  The less obvious differences in body composition mean women can’t safely drink the same amount as men. The alcohol lower risk unit guidelines for women is two to three units per day, while for men it’s three to four units. 

Get them to point out the differences they see between you and them – height, weight, etc. What about inside, the stuff you can’t see? Your brain, liver, stomach etc. Until young people’s bodies have finished growing their brains, livers and other internal organs are more vulnerable to the effect of alcohol. Point out taste buds are different too – most children dislike foods such as olives and like sweets. When they’re older, they might find this changes. Just as their bodies will adapt to different tastes so they will become able to cope with a certain amount of alcohol.

What if my child comes home drunk or having had drink?

Take a deep breath – this is not the right time to discuss it! Tell them to go to bed (make sure they are safe) and say “We’ll talk about this tomorrow”. Next day set aside a time and invite them to tell you what happened. Listen, and then tell them what you're feeling – upset, angry, worried, disappointed, whatever. Then go over all the issues you’ve discussed about the dangers, your rules and the punishments you’ve agreed.  

Tough questions answered

Children tend to ask the same questions about drinking at five or 15 and there are two vital things you need to keep in mind: One, that if you don’t answer, they’ll go elsewhere with their questions about alcohol and what they learn may not be helpful at all. Two, it’s perfectly OK to say “I don’t know” or “I haven’t thought about that yet” or “That makes me feel uncomfortable or embarrassed.” 

You don’t have to be the one with all the answers when it comes to talking to your child about underage drinking. All you have to do is to be the one they come to with most of the questions.

Wine tastes a bit like sour grape juice, cider like sour apple juice and beer can be bitter. Since taste buds change as you get older you might find alcohol doesn't taste very nice. 

Because I like the taste, and because alcohol can relax you and make you feel good. But there are other ways of feeling good and relaxing – shall we talk about some of them? 

It can make you feel dizzy and silly. If you have too much you can be very silly – dangerously so. Sometimes you don’t care what you say or do. And afterwards you can feel sick and have a headache – a hangover.

No, because I don't want you drinking alcohol at your age, even if your friends drink. If you break our rules you can’t go. Take a soft drink. I know you might find it hard just to say no, so tell them you’ve got a special event tomorrow and can’t drink tonight. 

It is not illegal for a parent or guardian to give their child alcohol at home if they are aged over five years old. However, if you don’t want to, you could say:  No, not even a sip. You may feel grown up but your body is still developing, and alcohol can harm you at your age. 

You can find out more about the law on the Official Guidance page

What other kids get up to is not my business – you are. Alcohol, even a small amount, would harm you now and I love you far too much to risk that. 

You can’t drink because you’re my responsibility  and I care about you. And they may seem fine but alcohol doesn’t necessarily harm you at once.

If you’ve tried a few and stop now your body will repair any damage it might have done. But go on and alcohol affects your weight, your skin, your sleep, your brain, your liver, your ability to think straight and make good decisions. Don’t join them – get them to join you!

Yes, it can be fun when your body is fully grown, and even then it can lead to problems. Hangovers or having to remember the silly things you did while drunk aren’t fun. But I love it when you enjoy yourself! Name something I can do to help you enjoy yourself! But drinking isn’t one of them – it’s bad for you and I say no. 

You’re right, you’re not a child. You’re a teenager, an adolescent – an apprentice adult. And that means that while you’re a lot more mature than a child, your body is still developing. Show me how mature you are by researching some of the drawbacks of drinking at your age and then let’s talk some more about this. 

Probably before I should have. And I wish I hadn’t. And if my parents had known then what I know now I’m sure they would have tried as hard as I’m trying to keep you safe.

Just because I did it doesn’t mean you should copy me or that I don’t know better now!

Maybe.The Chief Medical Officer for England advises that you shouldn’t drink at all before you’re 15. After that you might be able to have alcohol on special occasions – never more than once a week. And never more than the recommended daily guidelines  – you go and find out what they are! But I think 15 is a limit, not a goal.

The longer you leave it, the healthier you will be.

Don’t forget it’s against the law for you to buy alcohol or for anyone to sell it to you or buy it for you until you are 18. 

Do I? Oh dear – then I’ll have to change that because that isn’t healthy. But just because I drink doesn’t mean you can.

My body has finished developing, yours hasn’t and that’s why alcohol is bad for you. 

You’re right – I’m sorry. We should talk about alcohol.

I’m avoiding it because I’m worried and embarrassed you might catch me out or I won’t have the answers.

So let’s sit down and have a proper talk. We can both find out the facts we need, the important thing is to listen to each other. 

Got a question of your own?

Do you have a question about underage drinking or how to have the alcohol chat with your child? Ask the experts! Drinkaware is hosting two webinars:

1. With Consultant Paediatrician Dr Tim Ubhi on 27th November at 13:30 until 14:30. Register now

2. With Parenting Expert Suzie Hayman on 10th December at 12:30 until 13:30. Register now

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What should I do now?

References