Guest blog: A parent’s guide to preventing underage drinking

mother and teenage son having a conversation

Date Published

18th August 2022


Underage drinking



Being a parent isn’t always easy. We all want the best for our children but when it comes to alcohol, many are confused about the right approach.

We know that 71% of regular drinkers aged 11-15 are given alcohol by their parents1– the most common way of obtaining it - and wanted to find out why.

Our research found that less than one-third of parents are aware of the UK Chief Medical Officers’ (CMO) guidance on drinking for children and young people. And just one in ten, know what the guidance is2.

So, what is the guidance?

The CMO medical advice is that it’s healthiest and best for children to drink no alcohol at all before they are 18. And it’s especially important that children do not drink before the age of 15.

The NHS recommends that if a 15 to 17-year-old is permitted to drink alcohol underage – it should be rarely, and never more than one drink a week, and should always be supervised by a parent or guardian.

The safest option for children and young people under 18 is always not to drink.

What are the risks?

Alcohol can have serious effects on developing brains and bodies.

Children and young people are at increased risk of acute alcohol poisoning and regular drinking can cause longer-term damage to many organs, including the liver and heart, and several cancers.

Hormonal changes during puberty make children more likely to take risks. Teens under the influence are more likely to have unprotected sex, try drugs and become a victim or perpetrator of crime and drink spiking.

One in six children under 16 were identified as having a mental health problem in 20213 and more than four out of ten young people who drink alcohol report they are drinking to cope4. But alcohol will only worsen depression and anxiety, and poor mental health is also linked to higher rates of self-harm and suicide.

Early and regular drinking also increases the risk of harmful drinking in later life5. While regular drinking by age 14 is linked to a 20 point drop in GCSE grades6. Read more about the risks.

Why do some parents allow their children to drink early?

As well as being largely unaware of the medical advice, our research showed how much parents overestimated the prevalence of teen drinking. Parents in our survey believed 27% of 13-15-year-olds drank regularly (once a week or more often) whereas in fact only 8% do so7.

It seems that many of us are recalling what we were doing at that age, when behaviours have significantly changed over the past 20 years, during which time rates of underage drinking have halved8.

There are also some widespread myths9.

Myth: The French give their children alcohol and they don’t have any problems.

Reality: The French add a splash of wine to water to introduce children to the flavour without the intoxicating effects. And while France may not have a binge drinking culture, a recent study10 found that up to 30% of the adult population is drinking at harmful levels.

Myth: If I am too strict about alcohol my child will rebel and drink to excess.

Reality: Teenagers who consider their parents to be permissive are much more likely to binge drink. When parents don’t allow their children (aged 11-15) to drink, 89% choose not to drink.11

Myth: It’s OK to give kids drinks like fruity ciders and alcopops – they aren’t as strong as beer, wine or spirits.

Reality: Fruity ciders and alcopops are as strong as many beers.

Top tips to keep your child safe

Be aware of the importance of your influence as an educator and role model. Many parents believe their children – especially teenagers - are more influenced by their peer group while in fact, more than 70% of teens say their parents are the number one influence.11

  • Good communication is key. Start conversations about alcohol before your child becomes a teenager. The conversation will need to change as they get older. Check out Drinkaware’s advice or the Alcohol Education Trust and Family Lives for helpful suggestions on how to talk about alcohol with your child.
  • Reassure them it’s fine to say no to alcohol
  • Make sure you have clear ground rules you both agree on and stick to them. Talk to other parents and make sure they understand your stance on alcohol. Know where your children are on Friday and Saturday night in particular.
  • Do your research. The Alcohol Education Trust has really helpful tips on how to hold a great alcohol-free teen party as well as preparing for house parties at friends’ houses. Don’t forget to praise your teen when it all goes well!
  • If your teenager does get drunk, first and foremost make sure they are safe. And when they are sober, talk to them about the risks.
  • Lead by example. If you want to prevent your children drinking underage, you need to set a good example. If you are struggling to control your own drinking, there is support available.
  1. NHS Digital (2020): Smoking, drinking and drug use among young people in England 2018.
  2. CAP (2022): An alcohol-free childhood – action to ensure parents keep their children free from alcohol harm.
  3. NHS Digital (2021): Mental Health of Children and Young People in England 2021
  4. Drinkaware Monitor (2016).
  5. Grant BF, Dawson DA. Age at onset of alcohol use and its association with DSM-IV alcohol abuse and dependence: Results from the National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiologic Survey. Journal of Substance Abuse. 1997;9:103–110.
  6. Department for Education (2010): Young people’s alcohol consumption and its relationship to other outcomes and behaviour.
  7. CAP (2022): An alcohol-free childhood – action to ensure parents keep their children free from alcohol harm.
  8. NHS Digital (2020): Smoking, drinking and drug use among young people in England 2018.
  9. Balance North East (2018): Alcohol before 18. What’s the harm? A guide for parents.
  10. INSERM (2021): Réduction des dommages associés à la consommation d’alcool.
  11. NHS Digital (2020): Smoking, drinking and drug use among young people in England 2018.
Find out more

Alcohol and the law

The risks of underage drinking

Teenage drinking

Talking to your child about alcohol


Please note that any third-party content on the Drinkaware website is intended for general information and non-commercial purposes only. Any links to third party websites are provided solely as a convenience to you and not as an endorsement by Drinkaware of the contents or accuracy of materials on such third-party websites. A guest author does not represent Drinkaware or their views. All care has been taken to ensure it is accurate at time of publishing, but medical guidelines often change, and this post may not be updated to reflect that. Always consult a suitably qualified medical professional before undertaking any medical-related decisions.