The right message for the right age

Get talking – when do you start?

Children are naturally curious about alcohol – they see people drinking and they want to know more. Kids will be influenced by their friends,their teachers, TV, films and the media – but in most cases, parents have the biggest effect on their children’s behaviour, including how they drink alcohol. So you’re in a good position to make sure they have the facts about alcohol and drinking, and can make sensible choices in the future.

At what age should I talk about drinking?

There is no one size fits all message, but gearing your conversation to different ages helps.

Very young children

It is illegal to give a child under five alcohol. By the time a child is aged five, research shows they have already formed basic attitudes and opinions about alcohol. If you drink at home, your children are bound to ask questions at an early age about what you are drinking and what it tastes like.

At what age should I talk about drinking?

It is tempting to just say ‘wait until you are older’, but it is worth explaining to your child that little bodies can’t digest alcohol, which is ‘strong’ so that is why they should wait until they are older. No one size fits all message, but gearing your conversation to different ages helps.


11 – 13 year-olds

The average age of a first whole drink in the UK is between the ages of 13 and 14, so it’s important to talk at an early age and for your child to have an understanding of units, how alcohol affects the body and liver, why young bodies can’t cope with alcohol and the risks they run by experimenting. This is why the UK Chief Medical Officers recommend that children under 15 should not drink alcohol, as their brains and livers are not fully developed and are more liable to damage than adults.

At what age should I talk about drinking?

At age 11, children see it as unacceptable to get drunk and more than 99% don’t drink regularly, but age 13 is what we call ‘the tipping point’. Growing up is an awkward time, reaching puberty, their social lives changing, relationships and peer pressure growing – and probably being less open with you. Try not to force the subject, wait until the subject comes up via the TV, the media or similar. Put a conversation about drinking in context with other ‘life skills’, such as staying safe, talking about drugs and what sex is all about.

You might think your ‘baby’ is too young for all this, but unfortunately in this savvy world they’ll be more informed than you think! Often, a good approach is to talk about a risky situation involving alcohol featured in a soap, movie or in the news. Car journeys work well as your kids can’t walk off, they don’t have to make eye contact and it is a neutral zone. Try to use open ended questions such as ‘Tell me about’ or ‘What did you think about..?’


Older teenagers

Finding the right balance between protecting teenagers and giving them freedom isn’t easy. You can’t be by their side all the time, and they wouldn’t thank you for it anyway. However, with communication and trust, you can help them to make the right decision in a tricky situation, learn from their mistakes, come to you for advice when needed and still stay safe.
Research shows that older teenagers often experiment with alcohol in the company of their friends, either at parties or in public places. Drinking among young adults is declining though, with 24% of 16-24 year-olds choosing not to drink at all; 30% of 15 year-olds haven’t even tried alcohol. Checking where your kids are and who they are with is really important at this age. Pick up and drop off at parties, check parents are present, ensure sleep over plans are genuine and be prepared to say no if you’re not happy or your teenager hasn’t been honest with you.
By age 16 many teenagers will drink, so talking to your kids about low risk drinking guidelines, what a unit is, how to resist peer pressure and what happens to your reactions if you combine drinking and driving, for example, is really important.



Young adults

Once your child has gone to college or is living away from home for the first time, it is harder to influence them and you have no control over the time they come home or how they drink and eat. The path to self-respect and independence should have been properly laid already, but the following advice might help:

  • Highlight the dangers of drunkenness, such as not getting home safely, looking a fool in front of their friends or partners and the risk of unprotected sex, assault and theft.
  • Encourage them to pace themselves by alternating with soft drinks, to eat before going out and to be aware of the alcohol levels of different drinks.
  • Tell them to keep their mobiles fully charged and with them when going out and to work out how they will get home before they go.
  • Always let someone know where they are going and who with.
  • Remind them to never to
    • Leave their drink (alcoholic or soft) as it could be spiked
    • Drink and drive
    • Take a lift from someone they suspect has taken drink or drugs
    • Leave a party or venue on their own.

A good wake up call if they’re tempted to drink-drive is that they’ll be unable to get car insurance, they’ll lose their licence for at least a year and face an unlimited fine or a 6-month prison sentence. Another is the effect of a criminal record on their job prospects if they get involved in violence or damage. Tell them that they won’t be able to go to the US if they have a criminal record.

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BBC Learning Video

BBC Learning – Four young people, tell how their lives have been dramatically affected by drinking too much

Teens drinking