By Raising Children Network, with the Centre for Adolescent Health
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Teenaged girl with mum discussing drug use

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Australians aged 12-17 years are more likely to get alcohol from a relative than from any other source.
Adolescence is a time of trying new things – and for some young people, this includes trying alcohol. If you’re informed about the risks and have some strategies in place, you can help your child avoid the ill effects of alcohol.

What you need to know

For many young people, trying alcohol is a normal part of growing up.

Teenagers will often look to their friends or even the media for cues about how to behave when it comes to drinking alcohol. For example, having friends and ‘fitting in’ are very important to teenagers. This can influence whether your child tries alcohol – he might drink to please other kids or fit in with what everyone else is doing. Some teenagers might enjoy the way alcohol makes them feel and the status it gives them within their peer group. Some might find alcohol attractive because it makes them feel like they’re taking a risk or being ‘grown up’.

For most young people who try alcohol, there will be no long-term effects. But for a small number, drinking in adolescence might lead to more chronic problems and even addiction. For some teenagers, alcohol use can be a sign of other problems.

Alcohol is the most commonly used and most damaging drug among young people. It’s also the drug of choice for Australians of all ages.

Drinking: what’s safe

The short answer is nothing. There’s just no safe level of alcohol use for young people under 15.

When young people drink, there’s a risk that their brains won’t develop properly. Adolescence is an important time for brain development, with lots of new nerve connections and pathways being made. Alcohol can interrupt this process and even cause mild impairment.

Also, the earlier in life young people start drinking, the greater their risk of alcohol-related problems when they’re older. Young people who start drinking before they’re 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than young people who don’t start drinking until they’re 21.

The legal drinking age in all Australian states and territories is 18 years. The National Medical Health and Research Council (NHMRC) currently recommends that young people under the age of 15 should have no alcohol at all.

What can happen when young people drink

Effects on body and behaviour
Alcohol affects the body in several ways. Initially it can reduce tension and make the drinker feel more relaxed. But as alcohol intake increases, the drinker might become drowsy, lose balance and coordination, slur speech, think more slowly, and possibly feel nauseous or even vomit.

As the amount of alcohol in the blood keeps rising, the drinker’s performance and behaviour deteriorate, causing a greater chance of accidents, injury or violence. At extreme levels, alcohol can cause unconsciousness or inhibit normal breathing.

Many teenagers don’t understand the effects alcohol has on the body and how it can take a lot less alcohol for teenagers to feel these effects.

Effects on decision-making
One of the most important tasks of adolescence is learning how to make independent, responsible decisions. Some of these decisions will be good and some will be poor – making mistakes and learning from them is all part of the process.

But when you add alcohol to the decision-making process, mistakes can have very serious consequences. This is because alcohol makes people more likely to do things they’d otherwise think twice about.

For example, a young person under the influence of alcohol could:

  • be the victim of physical or verbal violence, or be violent themselves
  • have unprotected sex, or not be able to deal with unwanted sexual advances and be sexually assaulted
  • experience hallucinations or delusions that could lead to accidents or injury
  • get alcohol poisoning and lose consciousness
  • be injured while swimming, playing sport, climbing or even trying to cross a road
  • have trouble managing school and/or work commitments
  • break the law or get into trouble with the police
  • lose control, behave inappropriately and harm important relationships with friends and family.
If your child is using alcohol or other drugs – or you think she might be – see our article on helping teenagers who are using alcohol and other drugs. It contains information on the signs of drug use and abuse, as well as support options and resources.

Your role

You and other significant adults are a major influence on your child’s use of alcohol.

You’re unlikely to be able to stop your child from trying alcohol, but you can be a role model for safe habits. For example, you can send your child powerful messages about alcohol by drinking occasionally, in moderation and in company. Even the way you talk about drink and drugs sends a message. For example, you might think about what your child hears when an adult says something like, ‘I need a drink – I had a shocking day at work’.

Safety messages
When it comes to your child’s use of and exposure to alcohol at home or other places, you can reinforce safety and moderation messages by talking with your child from an early age. Examples of things you might want to talk about include drinking in a safe environment, not drinking too much and not drinking and driving.

If your child is older, you can give your child the facts about:

  • sensible drinking – that is, not drinking on an empty stomach, alternating alcoholic drinks with water, being particularly careful about drinking in an unknown or potentially unsafe environment (for example, with strangers, or at large events and parties where there are no adults) and setting up a non-drinking buddy system
  • the size of a standard drink – many people are unsure about how much alcohol makes up one standard drink. One glass or one small bottle of a drink is often much more than one standard drink
  • the immediate and long-term health risks of binge-drinking
  • how alcohol could land him in some of the dangerous situations above.

If you have a close relationship with your child, it might be easier for you to raise these issues with her, so work on staying connected. Using a positive approach to managing your child’s behaviour can also help.

If your child’s planning to have a party at home or is invited to a friend’s party, there are a few ways you can reinforce these safety messages. For example, it’s a good idea to agree on some ground rules about whether he drinks alcohol and, if so, how much is OK. For more information, you can read our article about teenage parties.  

Talking with young children about drugs and alcohol
Even children as young as five can have opinions about alcohol, so it’s a good idea to talk with your child from an early age.

Before the school years, you can be open and honest about any questions that come up, but there’s no need to raise the topic of alcohol.

When your child is a couple of years into school, you can chat with her about alcohol. You could start with something like, ‘Does your class ever talk about drinking alcohol? What do they say? What do you think?’ You can use these conversations as a chance to communicate facts about alcohol, such as the effects it has on the body or how it can affect decision-making. You might also like to use these conversations to discuss values and expectations about alcohol use in your family.


Alcohol use among young Australians: changing trends

Experimentation with alcohol and other drugs is more likely to increase as children move through the teenage years. A survey of young Australians showed that more than 90% of teenagers have tried alcohol by the time they turned 15. One in six 16-17 year olds drank to excess every week.