Teenagers and alcohol: what you need to know

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 more chronic problems or even addiction. For some teenagers, alcohol use can be a sign of social or mental health problems.

You might not think of alcohol as a drug, but it’s a psychoactive 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 drug of choice for Australians of all ages.

Drinking alcohol: what’s safe for teenagers

The short answer is nothing. There’s just no safe level of alcohol use for young people under 18 years.

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 in early adulthood and beyond. 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) 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.

How to influence your child’s use of alcohol

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’.

Safety messages
You can help your child avoid the risks of alcohol use by talking about safe alcohol use, including:

  • drinking in a safe environment and avoiding unsafe environments – for example, with strangers, or at large events and parties where there are no adults
  • not binge-drinking
  • not drinking and driving
  • not drinking on an empty stomach, and alternating alcoholic drinks with water
  • not getting involved in drinking games
  • setting up a non-drinking buddy system.

Your child also needs to know the size of a standard drink. A standard drink is any drink containing 10 grams of alcohol. One glass or one small bottle of drink is often a lot more than one standard drink. The number of standard drinks is shown on the label – for example, on a bottle of beer.

If your child is planning to have 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, these could be rules like how much alcohol is OK and what to do if your child’s environment becomes unsafe.

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, like the effects it has on the body or how it can affect thinking and behaviour. You might also like to use these conversations to discuss values and expectations about alcohol use in your family.

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

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 has information on the signs of drug use and abuse, as well as support options and resources.

When teenagers drink alcohol: what can happen

Body and behaviour
Alcohol affects the body in several ways.

At first it can make people feel more relaxed. But as people drink more, they might become drowsy, lose balance and coordination, slur speech, think more slowly, and possibly feel sick or even vomit.

As the amount of alcohol in the blood goes up, people can’t think clearly or coordinate their body properly. This means they’re more likely to have accidents, get injured or be 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.

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.

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 the process.

But when people are drinking alcohol, mistakes can have very serious consequences. This is because alcohol affects people’s ability to think quickly, make judgments and avoid dangerous situations or risky behaviour.

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

  • be the victim of physical or verbal violence, or be violent
  • 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
  • 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 his reputation.