Evidence shows meaningful conversations about alcohol between parents and their children can help the child develop a sensible relationship with drink1 2.

When you talk to your child about alcohol 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 it as part of an on-going conversation.
Remember, use what you feel comfortable with and adapt the advice to your own parenting style.

Tough questions answered 

Children tend to ask the same questions about drinking alcohol at five or 15. 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.

What does alcohol taste like?

You could say:

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

Why do you and other adults drink?

You could say:

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?

What does it feel like to be drunk?

You could say:

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.

Can I take alcohol to a party if I’m under 18?

You could say:

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. I know you might find it hard just to say no, so tell them you’ve got something on tomorrow and can’t drink tonight.

Can I try a sip of your drink?

You could say:

It’s 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 on official guidance on alcohol and young people page.

My friends have all tried booze, so why can’t I?

You could say:

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.

It looks really fun, why are you trying to stop me enjoying myself?

You could say:

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 stupid things you did while drunk aren’t fun. Let’s think of other things you can do to unwind or have fun. But drinking isn’t one of them – it’s bad for you and I say no.

I’m not a child, I’m at secondary school now.

You could say:

You’re right, you’re not a child. You’re a teenager, an adolescent. 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.

When did you have your first drink?

You could say:

Probably before I should have. And I wish I hadn’t. 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.

When I’m older can I have some?

You could say:

Maybe. The Chief Medical Officer (CMO) 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 alcohol unit guidelines.

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.

Why won’t you answer me?!

You could say:

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.

Is drinking dangerous?

You could say:

Yes, particularly at your age as your body is still developing. Drinking alcohol can make you less aware of danger, so you’re more likely to hurt yourself. It has been linked to problems with your liver and even your performance at school.

Can alcohol make you sad?

You could say:

Yes it can. It doesn’t just affect you physically; alcohol can also affect your mood and emotions. Sometimes people feel sad because they do things when they have been drinking that they wouldn’t normally do. Alcohol has also been linked to more serious mental health issues like depression.

Can I try some on a special occasion?

You could say:

No. I don’t want you drinking alcohol. You may feel grown up, but your body is still developing and alcohol can harm you at your age. Children and their parents and carers are advised that an alcohol-free childhood is the healthiest and best option. However, if children drink alcohol underage, it shouldn’t be until at least the age of 15 years.

How to talk to your children about alcohol 

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 shout at them. 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

The first step to getting the tone right is to make it a conversation rather than a lecture. Listen as much as you talk. This 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 alcohol 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.

Chose 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. 

Chose conversational 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 test 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 responsibly4.  Have clear rules and have sanctions for breaking 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.

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 explain that there are no safe levels of drinking even for adults. UK government alcohol guidelines say that men and women should not exceed more than 14 units a week to minimise risks to their health. 

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?

Take a deep breath. This is not the right time to discuss it. Tell them to go to bed (making sure they are safe and don’t show signs of alcohol poisoning) and say “We’ll talk about this tomorrow.”

Next day set aside a time and ask 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.

 

References

(1) Highet 2005. Alcohol and cannabis: Young people talking about how parents respond to their use of these two drugs. Drugs: Education, Prevention, and Policy, 2005, Vol. 12, No. 2 : Pages 113-124 Downloaded from: 

http://informahealthcare.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/09687630412331315125

(2)Siobhan M. Ryan, Anthony F. Jorm and Dan I. Lubman. Parenting Factors Associated with Reduced Adolescent Alcohol Use: A Systematic Review of Longitudinal Studies. Aust N Z J Psychiatry 2010 44: 774. http://anp.sagepub.com/content/44/9/774.short

(3) Williams, B., et al. (2010). Children, Young People and Alcohol, Department for children, schools and families, p.28 http://alcoholeducationtrust.org/resources/facts/youthdrinkingUKsurvey2010DCSF.pdf

(4) Van der Vorst et al. (2006). The impact of alcohol-specific rules, parental norms about early drinking and parental alcohol use on adolescents' drinking behaviour. Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 47(12) p.1299-306. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1469-7610.2006.01680.x/abstract