Talking to your child about alcohol
Honest, open conversations about alcohol can keep your kids safe. Here’s how to do it
Knowing when and how to talk to your children about alcohol isn’t always easy. But being able to have open, honest conversations about the part alcohol plays in their life and the world around them can help to keep them healthy, happy and safe.
Drinking alcohol before the age of 18 is related to a wide range of health and social problems, so the UK Chief Medical Officers recommend an alcohol-free childhood as the healthiest and best option. But what’s the best way to talk about it? And what questions can you expect?
There’s no getting away from the fact that your children will see alcohol in the world around them. Even if you don’t drink yourself, they can see alcohol in shops, on social media, or on TV. In fact, research shows 10-15 year-olds are now more exposed to TV advertising for alcohol than their parents.1
Evidence shows meaningful conversations about alcohol between parents and their children can help the child develop a sensible relationship with alcohol.2,3
Talking openly with your children about drinking and answering their questions can be beneficial, no matter how old they are. Of course, you need to tailor what you say to their age, but the key is to answer questions and be guided by what they already know.
Drinking alcohol underage has real risks. It’s linked to alcohol poisoning and hospital admissions for young people,4 and it can affect success at school,5 mental health,6 and encourage other risky behaviour like smoking and drug taking too. Parental support can play a vital role in helping to prevent children drinking and these bad outcomes.
If you don’t talk to them about alcohol, someone else will – and that might mean inaccurate information from their friends or somewhere online that does more harm than good. And although some schools do cover the subject of alcohol, it’s not compulsory, so it’s a good idea to talk about it at home.
62% of 13-17 year olds told us, through a national independent survey, that they would go to their parent or guardian for advice about alcohol, but only 17% would ask their teachers.7
Talking to your children about alcohol isn’t about ‘having the talk’ - because it’s not a one-off lecture. Ultimately – even though it might not always feel like it – your children value what you think and feel, and will listen to what you say.
If your child has started drinking alcohol, or showing interest in it, understanding their motivations is a good first step towards helping them make sensible choices.
Experimenting with alcohol becomes more common as children get older. For example, in England in 2018, 14% of 11-year-olds said they had tried alcohol compared to 70% of 15-year-olds.8
Risky behaviour is common among teens. The development of the rational ‘thinking brain’ is not fully completed until 16 or 17 years-old, with more ‘fine tuning’ right into the early 20s.9
But it’s vitally important to understand that drinking alcohol affects children’s health differently to adults. That’s why - as well as advising that an alcohol-free childhood is the safest and best option - the UK Chief Medical Officers go on to say that if any teenagers do drink alcohol, it shouldn’t be at least until the age of 15, in a supervised environment, and no more than once a week.
Your children might be drawn to alcohol, even if their first experience of it is unpleasant. It’s not uncommon to persist, even if they don’t like the taste or the way it makes them feel. If they know you’re a good person to talk to about it, they’re more likely to let you know what part (if any) alcohol plays in their life, and listen to advice about healthy choices.
Common reasons that young people (11-15-year-olds) in England give for why they think people their age drink alcohol include:10
Although pushing boundaries and testing rules are part of growing up, young people feel safer if they have clear rules, with sanctions for breaking them. If an older sibling is the source of envy, ask them to set a good example – wanting to be admired could reinforce their own good behaviour too.
Find out more about alcohol and the law for under 18s
Younger children will ask questions but ultimately are likely to accept being told “you’re too young”. But for older children, acknowledging and respecting their growing maturity means they’re more likely to listen if you’re able to explain why avoiding alcohol is so important for their health.
What questions might your child ask about alcohol?
If you get home and say “Oh, I could do with a drink!”, you may be setting the example that alcohol is somehow an essential part of life. Setting a good example can be the key to protecting them against early and unwise drinking.11,12
Drinking regularly, often looking hungover, drinking alone or during the daytime could be signs that a young person is ‘drinking to cope’. Three out of ten 13-17 year olds who say they have drunk alcohol say they did it to forget about their problems.
It’s important for young people to understand the risks of underage drinking but they might not listen or believe you unless you are honest about your own experiences and the reasons why adults drink. Here are six ideas on how to approach the conversation.
Make it a conversation rather than a lecture, and listen as much as you talk. If you can avoid coming across as judgmental, critical or disapproving, your child is more likely to pay attention and open up too.
Avoid starting a discussion just as they’re going out the door to meet friends, before bed, or in the middle of an argument about other things. Approaching it as part of an ongoing discussion will have a greater impact on your child’s decisions about drinking.
If they haven’t brought up the subject you could find a ‘hook’. This could be a recent film or TV storyline, a celebrity news story involving drinking, or even stories about family or friends. Simply ask “What do you think?” and follow on from what they say.
If you're not honest they might not believe what you tell them. For example, if you drank when you were younger, it’s better to say “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.
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. Have clear rules and have sanctions for breaking them.
First, make sure they’re safe and don’t show signs of alcohol poisoning. It’s best to discuss it the next day; ask them what happened, listen, and tell them what you're feeling – whether you’re upset, worried or disappointed. Go over previous discussions you’ve had about the dangers and remember to stick to any rules and punishments you’ve agreed.
 Hastings, G., & Sheron, N. (2013). Alcohol marketing: Grooming the next generation: children are more exposed than adults and need much stronger protection. BMJ (Clinical Research Ed.), 346, f1227. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.f1227
 Jones A, Sawyer A, Huber JW, et al (2020) Parent–child conversations associated with alcohol-related risk behaviours in young people (13–17 years) in the UK: a cross-sectional studyBMJ Open 2020;10:e033171. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2019-033171
 Carver, H., Elliott, L., Kennedy, C., & Hanley, J. (2017). Parent–child connectedness and communication in relation to alcohol, tobacco and drug use in adolescence: An integrative review of the literature. Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy, 24(2), 119-133. https://doi.org/10.1080/09687637.2016.1221060
 Karen A., P., Wei, Q., & Scott T., L. (2017). Binge drinking and academic performance, engagement, aspirations, and expectations: A longitudinal analysis among secondary school students in the COMPASS study. Health Promotion and Chronic Disease Prevention in Canada : Research, Policy and Practice, 37(11), 376–385.
 Lima, F., Sims, S., & O’Donnell, M. (2020). Harmful drinking is associated with mental health conditions and other risk behaviours in Australian young people. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 44(3), 201–207. https://doi.org/10.1111/1753-6405.12978
 Rossow, I., Keating, P., Felix, L., & McCambridge, J. (2016). Does parental drinking influence children’s drinking? A systematic review of prospective cohort studies. Addiction (Abingdon, England), 111(2), 204–217. https://doi.org/10.1111/add.13097
 Van Damme, J., Maes, L., Kuntsche, E., Crutzen, R., De Clercq, B., Van Lippevelde, W., & Hublet, A. (2015). The influence of parental drinking on offspring’s drinking motives and drinking: A mediation analysis on 9 year follow-up data. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 149, 63–70. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2015.01.020
Last Reviewed: 28th April 2022
Next Review due: 28th April 2025