Children can still be drawn to alcohol even though their first experience of it may be unpleasant. They may not like the taste or how it makes them feel but they often persist.
It’s important for them to understand the risks of underage drinking but they won’t listen or believe you unless you first address the upsides of alcohol and why people drink.
Risky behaviour is higher in puberty
Young people can take risks deliberately having made a risk assessment and deciding it’s worth it. Their ability to assess risk isn’t accurate1. This is because teenagers are struggling with two important changes to the brain during adolescence:
- Puberty switches on a capacity for strong emotions, impulsive behaviour and a need for sensations. It’s why they’ll take risks even when they ‘know better’. Learning the facts about smoking or drinking may not stop them trying because the sensation-seeking part of their brain drowns out sense.
- The development of the thinking brain that assesses risks, plans ahead, sees consequences and governs self-control is not fully developed until 16 or 17 years old and even then it still needs fine tuning well into the 20s2. That’s why they need you to help them until they grow into their ability to be sensible.
The likelihood that a young person drinks alcohol regularly rises with age. In the latest national survey, the proportion of pupils who had drunk in the last week was relatively low among 11 to 13 year olds (from 1% of 11 year olds to 4% of 13 year olds), but increased sharply thereafter: 11% of 14 year olds and 22% of 15 year olds reported drinking alcohol in the last week3.
They copy your drinking habits
As young children many of the toys they played with were things that mimicked what they saw mum and dad doing – shopping, cooking or cleaning, feeding dolls or fixing cars. As they grow older, if you come home and say “Oh, I could do with a drink!” and when you reach for a bottle, you may be setting the example that alcohol is somehow an essential part of life. It’s important to recognise that kids don’t do what you say, they do what you do. The example you set can be the key to protecting them against early and unwise drinking4 5 6.
Teenagers drink alcohol to be like their friends
From a very early age children want to fit in. This is to demonstrate that they are part of a group. As children, you are still their main influence – they look to you and up to you. Once they become teenagers however their allegiance shifts: their friends become their focus and it’s their acceptance, not yours, that is most important. Teenagers may talk about being ‘individuals’ and ‘being different’ but most of them have a fear of standing out from the crowd. If drinking is seen to be the norm, your teenager may want to join in to feel part of the cool crowd.
They want to be like their older siblings
Parents with more than one child will recognise the struggle you can have when one of your children reaches the age to be granted a privilege and their younger sibling wants it too. Whether it’s staying up later, being allowed to go out alone or wear certain clothes, the younger child doesn't want to wait – they demand it now. Partly it’s rivalry, ‘if she has it, why can’t I?’ Partly it’s a desire to copy, ‘I want to be like him!’ The influence of brothers and sisters is powerful, so use it.
Ask an older sibling to set a good example, wanting to be admired could reinforce their own good behaviour, and ask a younger child to listen to their brother or sister as well as to you.
Young people see alcohol and drinking all around them
Young people are bombarded with examples of drink and drinking everywhere – on TV, in magazines, in social media. Social media is a reality of our lives, the lives of our teenagers and even of younger children. It can spread images and ideas rapidly which can be risky incitements to act irresponsibly. The trick is to nudge teenagers into using the good and being resistant to the harmful.
A useful exercise is to spend a day totting up how many times you see drink – in every medium from television to newspapers to magazines to social media. It will help you gain an insight into the messages they’re seeing.
They may have problems – with themselves, family, school or friends
Other than socialising or to unwind, one of the main reasons why some people drink alcohol is to try and cope with problems or stress. Arguments with partners, disagreements with friends, worry at work or anxiety can encourage people to reach for a drink. We’d like to think our children don’t have problems but even young children stress over friends, school and family.
Young people have as many things as we do that could worry, scare or pressure them. We need to recognise that they might feel alcohol could be the solution to exam stress7, not fitting in with peers or conflict at home. Then we can help them find other ways of dealing with these issues.
We often think of drinking as a problem and think explaining the dangers will be enough to put kids off. Sometimes drinking is the solution to a problem. To stop them drinking we need to find the real problem and offer a different solution to it.
Adolescents want to test you, your rules, your boundaries and their limits
Parents will experience their young children wanting to strike out on their own: they want to drop your hand and walk alone, to play in the park with friends without you. As they become teenagers they really want to smash through the barriers you see as protection but they see as confinement.
Gradually loosening your rules as they get older can help. If you relax on some issues you can stand firm on the important ones. Children will push – sometimes, not because they want you to give way but because they need you to say no, so they can see the edge and feel safe inside it.
Other times, their pushing is a sign that it’s time to renegotiate the rules. Too few rules feels scary and it can feel as if you don’t love or pay attention to them enough to care what they do. Too many rules can hamper a child who never learns to assess risk or make decisions.
Teenagers want to prove they’re grown up
Younger children will ask questions but ultimately are likely to listen to you and accept you saying “you’re too young”. Teenagers aren’t children, they’re adolescents and adolescents are apprentice adults – learning, but not quite there.
They need to prove to themselves, to their friends and to you that they are no longer kids. Saying “You're too young for that” is felt as a red rag to a bull. If drinking is for adults only, they’ll show you and everyone else they are adults... by drinking.
The more you acknowledge the changes and their growing maturity, the more you give them respect and responsibility, the more they will accept it when you add “You're growing up but your body still has some way to develop before you can drink alcohol safely.”
(2) Sindelar et al, 2004. Adolescent Alcohol Use and Injury: A Summary and Critical Review of the Literature. Adolescent Alcohol Use and Injury: A Summary and Critical Review of the Literature; Sindelar et al, 2004
(2) Jiang et al, 2008. Alcohol Consumption and Injury Among Canadian Adolescents: Variations by Urban–Rural Geographic Status. National Rural Health Association Vol 24 No 2
(3) Newbury-Birch et al, 2008. Impact of Alcohol Consumption on Young People: A Systematic Review of Published Reviews. Department for Children Schools and Families. Research Report DCSF-RR067.
(4)European Union; Eurostat; Population database; Fertility rates by age. Online.
(5) Best et al (2001). Drinking and smoking as concurrent predictors of illicit drug use and positive drug attitudes in adolescents. Drug and Alcohol Dependence 60 (2000). 319–321
(6) Newbury-Birch et al, 2008. Impact of Alcohol Consumption on Young People: A Systematic Review of Published Reviews. Department for Children Schools and Families. Research Report DCSF-RR067.
(7) Clark et al, 2008. Alcohol, Psychological Dysregulation, and Adolescent Brain Development. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research Vol. 32, No. 3 375-384; Newbury-Birch et al, 2008. Impact of Alcohol Consumption on Young People: A Systematic Review of Published Reviews. Department for Children Schools and Families. Research Report DCSF-RR067.