What is the right age to talk to kids about alcohol?

Trish Riley
Trish Riley

For many parents, the idea that their child is drinking may seem shocking – and their response is often a head-in-the-sand denial.

Teens are drinking and the stats may be alarming. According to a recent national survey, 16 per cent of year eight students reported drinking alcohol within the past month, with 32 per cent reporting drinking in the past year and 64 per cent saying that alcohol is easy to get. The survey also shows that more girls than boys aged 12 to 17 reported drinking alcohol.

When educators raise the issue of alcohol education in the classroom, some parents may have concerns. After all, “Isn’t it a little early to be concerned about drinking?”

The reality is ‘no’. Not at all. The early years of adolescence is a time when some children begin experimenting with alcohol. And if you’re a parent, even if your child is not yet drinking alcohol, he or she may be receiving pressure to drink. Open up the conversation now. Keeping quiet about how you feel may give him or her the impression that alcohol use is okay for kids.

- Advertisement -

The bottom line is that most young teens don’t yet drink – and some never will. For those who don’t, parents’ disapproval of youthful alcohol use is the key reason. Study after study shows that even during teen years, parents have an enormous influence on their children’s behaviour. Make no mistake: You can make a difference.

For young people, alcohol is commonly the first drug of choice. In fact, alcohol is used by more young people than tobacco or illicit drugs. And while some parents and guardians may feel relieved that their teen is “only” drinking, it is important to remember that alcohol is a powerful, mood-altering drug. Not only does alcohol affect the mind and body in often unpredictable ways, but teens lack the judgment and coping skills to handle alcohol wisely. 

As a result:

  • Alcohol-related traffic crashes are a major cause of death among young people. Alcohol use also is linked with teen deaths by drowning, suicide, and homicide.
  • Teens who use alcohol are more likely to be sexually active at earlier ages, to have sexual intercourse more often, and to have unprotected sex than teens who do not drink.
  • Young people who drink are more likely than others to be victims of violent crime, including rape, aggravated assault, and robbery.
  • Teens who drink are more likely to have problems with school work and school conduct.
  • The majority of boys and girls who drink tend to binge when they drink.
  • A person who begins drinking as a young teen is four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than someone who waits until adulthood to use alcohol.

The message is clear: Alcohol use is unsafe for young people. And the longer children delay alcohol use, the less likely they are to develop any problems associated with it. That’s why it is so important for parents and educators to help teens avoid any alcohol use and give them access to accurate information that may help them make the best decision for themselves.

- Advertisement -

We need to talk…

Lecturing about the facts on alcohol and using scare tactics can make teens shut down. But be clear with your teen and say that you don’t want them to drink.


Teens want to be liked and accepted by friends. Help yours work through different situations so they’re ready. What can they say at a party when someone offers them a drink? What if someone they’re supposed to drive with is drinking? Brainstorm together and let your teen know they can always call or text you and you will pick them up with no lecturing or punishment.


Here are some important facts to share:

  • Drinking before age 18 is illegal.
  • Alcohol is a powerful drug that slows down the body and mind. It impairs coordination; slows reaction time; and impairs vision, clear thinking, and judgment.
  • Beer and wine are not “safer” than distilled spirits (gin, rum, tequila, vodka, whiskey, etc.). A 12-ounce can of beer (about 5 percent alcohol), a 5-ounce glass of wine (about 12 percent alcohol), and 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits (40 per cent alcohol) all contain the same amount of alcohol and have the same effects on the body and mind.
  • On average, it takes 2 to 3 hours for a single drink to leave a person’s system. Nothing can speed up this process, including drinking coffee, taking a cold shower, or “walking it off.”
  • Anyone can develop a serious alcohol problem, including a teenager.

What else can parents do?

The best way to influence a child to avoid drinking is to have a strong, trusting relationship with him or her. Research shows that teens are much more likely to delay drinking when they feel they have a close, supportive tie with a parent or guardian.

If young teens eventually do begin to drink, a good relationship with a parent or role model will help protect him or her from developing alcohol-related problems. The opposite also is true: When the relationship between a parent and teen is full of conflict or is very distant, the teen is more likely to use alcohol and to develop drinking-related problems.

- Advertisement -

This connection between the parent–child relationship and a child’s drinking habits makes a lot of sense when you think about it. First, when children have a strong bond with a parent, they are apt to feel good about themselves and therefore be less likely to give in to peer pressure to use alcohol. Second, a good relationship with a parent is likely to encourage them to try to live up to your expectations, because they want to maintain their close tie with you.

Here are some ways to build a strong, supportive bond with your child:

  • Establish open communication. Make it easy for your teen to talk honestly with you. 
  • Show you care. Even though young teens may not always show it, they still need to know that they are important to their parents. Make it a point to regularly spend one-on-one time with your child—time when you can give him or her your loving, undivided attention.
  • Draw the line. Set clear, realistic expectations for your child’s behaviour. Establish appropriate consequences for breaking rules and consistently enforce them.
  • Offer acceptance. Make sure your teen knows that you appreciate his or her efforts as well as accomplishments.
  • Understand that your child is growing up. This doesn’t mean a hands-off attitude. But as you guide your child’s behaviour, also make an effort to respect his or her growing need for independence and privacy.


Share This Article
Trish Riley is a Zimbabwean-born writer and communications specialist. With experience in journalism, and public relations, Trish has been developer and editor of several trade publications and regularly contributes articles for diverse sectors including aged care, animal care, construction and education.