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 harm 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 18 years should have no alcohol at all. Health experts say teenagers 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, and you can be a role model for safe alcohol habits.
For example, if you choose not to drink alcohol, that’s great. If you do drink alcohol, you can send your child powerful messages by drinking occasionally, in moderation and only with other people around.
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’.
It’s best not to give alcohol to your child or their friends. Letting teenagers try alcohol doesn’t reduce their risk of alcohol-related harm. It can also lead to more drinking later in life.
Talking with teenagers about alcohol use
Talking about alcohol use is an important way to prevent or limit your child’s use of alcohol.
Preparing to talk with your child
You can make difficult conversations like this easier by learning more about the effects and risks of alcohol. Looking at online resources can help you plan what to say.
You could also think about how to answer questions about alcohol, including questions about your own alcohol use. This way, you’re prepared if the issue comes up unexpectedly.
When you have a close relationship with your child, it’s easier for you to raise issues like alcohol use with them, so work on staying connected too.
Starting a conversation
You could start a conversation by talking about something you and your child have seen – for example, alcohol in a movie, TV show or advertisement, or alcohol at a party. Or you could ask your child some questions. For example:
- Do kids at school talk about alcohol? What do they say?
- What do you think about our family rules on drinking alcohol?
How to talk and what to say
During your conversations with your child about alcohol, you could:
- 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.
You can be clear about your own beliefs and values, but it’s also important to listen and be open to what your child has to say.
If your child has questions, try to answer them briefly, honestly and calmly. If you don’t know the answers to your child’s questions, it’s OK to say so. You can tell your child you’ll think about it and get back to them, or you could offer to look for the answers together.
If your teenage child is using alcohol or other drugs – or you think they might be – it’s important to look for the signs. You might also need to get familiar with support options and resources for your child.
Helping teenagers stay safe around alcohol
If your child is going to be around alcohol with other young people, it’s safest for your child not to drink alcohol.
But in these situations, it’s common for teenagers to want or feel pressured to try alcohol. This might be because they want to fit in with friends, feel part of their peer group or look cool. You can help your child plan how to respond to this pressure. For example, your child could say ‘Thanks but I’ve got a game tomorrow’ or ‘No thanks, I don’t drink’.
Some teenagers might try alcohol and enjoy the way it makes them feel. It might give them a thrill or make them feel ‘grown up’. If you think your child might be in this situation, here are messages about alcohol use that can help to keep your child safe:
- Avoid unsupervised and unsafe environments – for example, with strangers, or at large events and parties where there are no adults.
- Don’t binge-drink.
- Don’t mix alcohol with other drugs.
- Don’t drink and drive or get into a car being driven by someone who has been drinking.
- Drink slowly, don’t drink on an empty stomach, and alternate alcoholic drinks with water.
- Keep count of drinks and limit how many alcoholic drinks you have.
- Don’t get involved in drinking games.
- Have a non-drinking buddy.
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.
When teenagers drink alcohol: what can happen
Alcohol is an addictive drug that affects people’s bodies, behaviour and decision-making abilities.
Body and behaviour
Alcohol affects people’s bodies and behaviour 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 feel sick and vomit.
As the amount of alcohol in their 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 high 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 their own 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 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 they’re doing or where they are
- 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 their reputation.
Many teenagers don’t understand the effects alcohol has on the brain and how it can take a lot less alcohol for teenagers than for adults to feel the effects.