What are the reasons that some teenagers drink, what are the risks, and how can parents and carers help keep them healthy and out of trouble?
Although many teenagers experiment with alcohol, the latest statistics show that the majority of 11-15 year olds in England haven’t ever tried alcohol.1
The UK Chief Medical Officers (CMOs) recommend an alcohol-free childhood as the best and safest option. And - although not recommended - the CMOs also say if children do drink alcohol, it shouldn’t be until at least 15 years of age.
For teenagers that do drink – it’s important to understand that alcohol has serious effects on their health and development.
Teenagers can think they’re invincible. But alcohol is harmful to children and young people - drinking before becoming an adult has additional risks for health and wellbeing.
Risks associated with teenage drinking include the possibility of acute alcohol poisoning. This can cause low blood sugar, seizures, greater chance of accidental injury, or ending up in vulnerable or dangerous situations.
All of these contribute to underage drinkers being admitted to hospital as emergencies, which can happen after drinking very modest amounts of alcohol, by adult standards. In fact, in England alone, more than 10,000 under-18s were admitted to hospital because of alcohol in the two years starting April 2017.2
As drinking alcohol can lower inhibitions, it’s also more likely that teenagers might engage in risky behaviour and can result in things like getting into fights, drink-driving or having unprotected sex.
And at an age when appearance and self-image can feel all-important, alcohol can also result in bad skin, bad breath (due to the smell of the drink lingering on breath) and weight gain3,4 for teens – and it’s something that’s true for older drinkers too. Weight gain, in particular, can easily become a long-term cause of serious health problems.
A particular risk for teenagers is the potential effect of drinking on the young brain, with teenage years being an important time for brain development.5
There is some evidence that shows binge drinking at under twenty years old can cause changes to the brain which affect concentration and learning, as well as encouraging higher levels of risk taking and impulsiveness. It can also increase the chance of anxiety, which can continue into adulthood.6
These effects can mean that a teenager doesn’t do as well in school, resulting in lifelong negative impact on their potential.
People who start drinking regularly at a young age are more likely to have alcohol related problems as an adult.7
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 more common during puberty. 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
If you’re concerned your teenager is struggling to cope with the pressures or worries of growing up in Britain today, it’s possible they may wrongly think drinking is a way to cope. And they might have seen adults ‘drinking to cope’ with life stresses.
Peer pressure and wanting to show off in front of friends can be major factors in contributing to drinking for the first time.10 And popular culture can play a part too.
A recent study found that adolescents with the highest exposure to films that show drinking were more likely to have tried alcohol and more likely to binge drink that their peers that hadn’t seen as much of this type of content.11
Parents, guardians and teachers are encouraged to talk openly with teenagers and other children about the serious risks associated with drinking as soon as they could be exposed to alcohol, either in or outside the home.
A good way to approach it is to:
A simple way to boost your credibility is to take a step back and think about your own drinking behaviour. Research shows that riskier drinking behaviours by parents are often copied by their children.12
Try taking our DrinkcompareQuiz to find out if you’re drinking at a harmful level. If you decide to cut down, a good way to start is by drinking less at home – it has lots of health benefits for you, as well as setting a good example for your children.
As teenagers get older, it’s not unusual for parties to become part of their lives – and that can mean they’ll start to be exposed to drinking amongst their peers. If you have a child who’s reached this stage, there are things you can do to keep them safe.
Agree a plan with your child in advance
If you decide they’re allowed to go, have clear consequences if they break your agreement. Remind them that if they take alcohol from your house without your permission, you would regard it as stealing.
Explain you need to check with the hosting parent
This can let you be sure the party will be supervised, and that there are limits on the amount of alcohol.
If possible, talk to other parents
A party is less likely to get out of hand if any alcohol is limited to what has been arranged by the host.
Talk to any older siblings
Explain they shouldn’t be involved in buying any alcohol as a favour – it is likely to be breaking the law.
Explain why they shouldn’t drink any alcohol before they go out
Allowing your child to drink before they go out isn’t a good idea – as you can’t be sure if they will drink when they are out, it increases the chance of them getting into trouble.13
Decide if alcohol is age-appropriate
If you decide some alcohol is ok, make sure it’s within the CMOs’ guidelines and stick to the plan.
Discuss and agree a plan in advance
Although teenagers may want to be left on their own, it’s reasonable for you or another adult to be at the party venue (even if it’s not in the same room).
Talk to other parents
If you’re going to allow any alcohol at the party, letting them know your plan can help them decide if they’re comfortable for their child to attend.
Keep an eye on things
Ultimately, you are responsible for making sure the party is safe. Keep an eye out for things like alcohol being smuggled in in soft drink bottles. You will also want to remove any alcohol stored in cupboards where the party is happening.
Take a deep breath – if they are under the influence of alcohol, it won’t be 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 – whether that’s upset, angry, worried, disappointed, or anything else.
It’s important to go over any issues you’ve discussed about the dangers of alcohol – and make sure you stick to the rules and consequences you’ve agreed.
Arming yourself with strategies and tips can help you or a loved one take small steps towards big results.
 NHS Digital. Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use among Young People in England 2018 (accessed 20 January 2022). Available at: https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/smoking-drinking-and-drug-use-among-young-people-in-england/2018#highlights
 Calculated by Public Health England: Population Health Analysis (PHA) team using data from NHS Digital - Hospital Episode Statistics (HES) and Office for National Statistics (ONS) - Mid Year Population Estimates. Accessed 5 January 2022.
 Yeomans, M.R. (2010). Alcohol, appetite and energy balance: is alcohol intake a risk factor for obesity? Physiology &Behavior, 100(1), 82-89.
 E. M. HIGGINS, A. W. P. du VIVIER, INVITED REVIEW: ALCOHOL AND THE SKIN, Alcohol and Alcoholism, Volume 27, Issue 6, November 1992, Pages 595–602, https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordjournals.alcalc.a045308
 Ewing, S. W., Sakhardande, A., & Blakemore, S. J. (2014). The effect of alcohol consumption on the adolescent brain: A systematic review of MRI and fMRI studies of alcohol-using youth. NeuroImage. Clinical, 5, 420–437. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nicl.2014.06.011
 Alcohol and the Developing Adolescent Brain: Evidence Review (2014) Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems Available at: https://www.shaap.org.uk/images/shaap_developing_adolescents_brain_press.pdf
Last Reviewed: 28th April 2022
Next Review due: 28th April 2022