Teenagers and alcohol: what you need to know
There’s no safe level of alcohol use for young people under 18 years.
Although trying alcohol is common among teenagers, there are many risks. Alcohol can impair brain development and increase the risk of other alcohol-related problems, including addiction, in early adulthood and beyond.
The legal drinking age in all Australian states and territories is 18 years. The National Medical Health and Research Council (NHMRC) recommends that children under 15 years should have no alcohol at all. But health experts say teenagers actually shouldn’t use alcohol until they’re 18 or even 21.
Being a role model for safe alcohol use
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 alcohol and other 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’.
You might not think of alcohol as a drug, but it’s a substance that affects your body, behaviour and decision-making abilities. You can get addicted to alcohol. It’s one of the drugs that young people use the most, and it can be one of the most damaging drugs. It’s also the most commonly used drug for Australians of all ages.
Talking with your child about alcohol use
Talking about alcohol use can be tricky, but it’s an important way to prevent or limit your child’s use of alcohol.
You can make difficult conversations like this easier by thinking about what you want to say beforehand. This way, you’re prepared if your child raises the topic of alcohol use unexpectedly. And you can also raise the topic with your child before she asks.
For example, you might use conversations about alcohol as opportunities to:
- discuss values and expectations about alcohol use in your family
- communicate facts, including the effects that alcohol has on the body or how it affects thinking and behaviour
- explain things like the size of a standard drink.
When you have a close relationship with your child, it’s easier for you to raise issues like alcohol use with him, so work on staying connected. And open conversations about these sorts of issues give you the chance to understand what’s going on in your child’s life. This means you’ll be better placed to help him manage difficult situations when they come up.
If your teenage child is using alcohol and other drugs – or you think she might be – it’s important to look out for the signs of drug use and abuse. You might also need to get familiar with support options and resources for your child.
Messages about safe alcohol use for your child
If your child is likely to be around alcohol with other young people, here are some messages about alcohol use that can help to keep your child safe.
It’s safest for your child to:
- avoid unsupervised and unsafe environments – for example, with strangers, or at large events and parties where there are no adults
- not binge-drink
- not mix alcohol with other drugs
- not drink and drive
- drink slowly, not drink on an empty stomach, and alternate alcoholic drinks with water
- keep count and limit how many alcoholic drinks he has
- not get pressured into drinking
- not get involved in drinking games
- set up a non-drinking buddy system.
If your child is planning to host a party at home or is invited to a friend’s party, it’s a good idea to agree on some rules. If you allow your child to drink alcohol, negotiate rules like what type and how much alcohol is OK and what to do if your child’s environment becomes unsafe.
When teenagers drink alcohol: what can happen
Body and behaviour
Alcohol affects the body in several ways.
At first it can make people feel energised and more social. But as people drink more, they might become drowsy, lose balance and coordination, slur speech and think more slowly. They can even feel sick or vomit.
As the amount of alcohol in the blood goes up, people can’t think clearly or coordinate their bodies properly. This means they’re at risk of accidents and injuries or being involved in violence.
At extreme levels, alcohol can make people unconscious or stop them breathing normally. Young people have been known to die from alcohol poisoning or from choking on vomit.
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 not so good – making mistakes and learning from them is all part of growing up.
But alcohol affects young people’s ability to think quickly, make good judgments and avoid dangerous situations or risky behaviour.
For example, a young person under the influence of alcohol could:
- be involved in physical or verbal violence
- 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 or die
- black out and forget what he’s doing or where she is
- be injured while swimming, playing sport, climbing or even trying to cross a road
- break the law or get into trouble with the police
- lose control, behave inappropriately and harm important relationships or damage her reputation.
Many teenagers don’t understand the effects alcohol has on the body and how it can take a lot less alcohol for teenagers than for adults to feel the effects.
Why teenagers drink alcohol
For many young people, trying alcohol is a normal part of growing up.
For example, having friends and fitting in are very important to teenagers. Your child might drink to feel part of a peer group or because he feels it gives him some status in his peer group.
Some teenagers might enjoy the way alcohol makes them feel. Or some might like alcohol because it gives them a thrill or makes them feel that they’re ‘grown up’.
For most young people who try alcohol, there won’t be any long-term effects. But for a few, drinking in adolescence can lead to immediate harm and long-term problems, including addiction.
For some teenagers, drinking alcohol can be a way to cope with or mask social or mental health problems. If you think this might be the case, talk to your GP. The GP might refer your child to a mental health professional who specialises in working with teenagers.