#childsafety | Seven essential tips for talking to teenagers about alcohol


On Saturday evenings, 15-year-old Bella* and her group of friends now have a well-practiced routine. They meet up at their local tube station in West London and scrape together all the pocket money they have. Five pounds will get them a cheap bottle of white wine, £8 a small bottle of vodka and £15 a large one. 

Then, one at time, they will try the local corner shops to buy their supplies for the evening ahead – a task made easier by the fact they can now wear masks to disguise their age.

Bella says:  “If we get asked, all of us have fake IDs too – mostly copies of our passport pages. It’s really easy now as there’s an app that lets you change your birth date to make you look over 18.

 “We’d never get away with it in a supermarket. But we know the small shops who will often sell it to us – usually when the younger guys are behind the till who probably know we’re faking it but sell it anyway.”

Then, whatever the weather, the group head for a shelter in the local park, where they meet up with a group from the local boys’ school, who bring their own supplies.

There they mix the spirits with Fanta or Coke, and aim to get as drunk as possible as quickly as possible, often with the help of drinking games.

Bella, who goes to a top-rated girls’ private school in the area, says: “No one wants to end up throwing up, But often someone does because they’ve mixed drinks or had more than they can handle.

“A few weeks ago, we had to call the ambulance when one of the boys passed out and his eyes started rolling back in his head. So we panicked. His mum wasn’t very happy but she still lets him come out because she wants him to be able to see his friends.

“We still drink a lot because alcohol makes everyone more fun. After being cooped up for so long last year and not going to parties or festivals, we think we deserve to have a good time.”

Of course, teenagers have always got drunk. But we are now living in a time when young people are drinking in different ways, and perhaps, with a different intensity.

Given the research we now have on the serious effects of alcohol on the teenage brain, as author of the book What’s My Teenager Thinking?, I’d say it’s never been more important to speak to our teens in ways they will help them take the risks on board.

Teens already consume 90 per cent of their alcohol by binge-drinking, according to research. And that’s a habit they are more likely to have got into during lockdown when they had fewer opportunities to see their friends and socialise.

Even before the pandemic, almost 65,000 young people every year need treatment in hospital A&E departments due to alcohol poisoning. And this week it has emerged another factor is playing a part.

A new study has found that young people who spend more time on social media are more likely to drink to excess.

Researchers from University College London analysed the lifestyles of 6,700 British youngsters. Among older teens, 30 per cent said they drank at least weekly.

And those aged 16 to 19 who spent more than an hour on social media each day were more likely to binge drink – defined as having more than five drinks in one sitting.

It’s a link that Bella’s friend and schoolmate Georgia, also 15, recognises. “Going on TikTok makes you feel you can never be pretty or thin enough.

“If I’m hoping to see a boy I like at the weekend, drinking a lot makes me worry less about how I look and be more upfront.” 

But while teens believe the effects fade when they sober up, a growing number of studies has found that alcohol can permanently damage memory, intelligence, and attention span because adolescents’ brains are not fully developed until the age of around 25.

And with many teens looking forward to a summer in which they can make up even more for lost time – but have missed out on the chance to learn how to moderate their intake through trial and error – it’s never seemed more urgent to bring up the subject.

So how do we best talk to teenagers about drinking, given that many parents have less-than-perfect drinking habits ourselves?

Talk around the table

Seventeen per cent of UK parents have let their kids try alcohol by the age of 14, according to research by UCL. And it’s white, well-educated parents who are the most likely to pour a glass of wine for children in the mistaken belief it will help them drink more responsibly later on.

If you’ve already given your children alcohol, use it as an opportunity to talk about the importance of drinking moderately – and in a safe context. Talk about how, why it may be OK for your teen to have a glass of cider when they are safe at home with you, at parties they will feel the pressure to drink more and alcohol is more likely to impair their judgement in less predictable situations – and put their health and safety at risk.

If you haven’t given your teen alcohol, stick to your guns

The younger children start drinking, the more likely it is to shape the reward centres in the brain and they more likely they are to get addicted, according to a range of studies. Explain that for the sake of their health – and their futures – you’d like to play it safe – and hold out for as long as possible.

Explain how alcohol affects teen brains differently 

Your teen may point out that, as a parent, you’re not in a position to lecture them on alcohol because you drink yourself. While this may be a sign to set a better example by cutting back, use it as an opportunity to explain that drinking affects the adult and adolescent brain differently.  

According to clinical child psychologist Dr Angharad Rudkin: “The same quantity of alcohol has a much stronger effect on teens than adults. Binge drinking in particular can damage the brain which is still developing. Teens are also primed to learn quickly – and this applies to getting addicted faster to alcohol.” 

Try saying: “You have so much ahead of you, and I expect you’ll want to face the future feeling as intellectually ready as possible. Remember that the effects of binge-drinking can have a lasting effect on your brain, long after the hangover has worn off.” It’s unlikely they’ll go teetotal, but planting the idea in their minds may well encourage them to take steps to moderate their intake.

Talk about how booze impairs judgment

Young people often drink more to feel more confident and less self-conscious. As a result, it also plays a major part in incidents of unprotected sex and even sexual assault, as the recent slew of testimonies on the platform Everyone’s Invited, which set out to expose rape culture in UK schools,  has shown. Talk to your daughters – and your sons – about having their early sexual encounters should ideally be happy, mutually enjoyable experiences that are not a source of regret and embarrassment later on.

If your teen thinks drinking is the solution, find out what the problem is

Forty three per cent of young people who drink alcohol say they do so to deal with stress, anxiety or to forget about problems. Create lots of opportunities to allow your teen to  openly express how they feel so they are less likely to use alcohol as a sticking plaster.  

Put social awkwardness in perspective. Explain that with time and experience, they will become more comfortable in social situations and alcohol should never become a crutch they feel they need to rely on.

Help them stand up to peer pressure 

Most teens drink to keep up with their friends and not to feel left out. And even if they know they’ve had too much, it takes practice to step back. Tell them how to monitor the signs that it’s time to stop, like blurred vision or slurred speech – and how to dilute drinks, and alternate alcohol with water.

According to charity Drinkaware, a good reminder for socially sensitive teens is that: “Turning down a drink is much less embarrassing than throwing one up.”

Keep talking

Rather than sit them down for one big talk, chat about alcohol as questions, real-life situations and news stories come up. While it’s unlikely your teen will never touch a drop, set out your expectations anyway, making it clear you don’t approve of underage alcohol use but you’re always ready to listen to their experiences and thoughts on the subject. Make it clear that safety always comes first and they can always ring you if drinking too much has put them – or others – in danger.

Tanith Carey is the author of ‘What’s My Teenager Thinking? Practical Child Psychology for Modern Parents’, with Dr Angharad Rudkin, available at the Telegraph Bookshop

* Names have been changed



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