When Should Teenagers Drink Alcohol?

what age should teens be allowed to drink

When should teens drink alcohol for the first time?

At thirteen, my daughter is beginning to encounter alcohol in her peer group.

There are parties and sleepovers and girls with older boyfriends, and at some point, I’m sure, Flea will be tempted to try alcohol.

To my mind, this is going to end one of three ways.

  • Option A, she’ll drink too much and find herself in a dangerous situation with impaired ability to assess risks, and will die a horrible death.
  • Option B, she’ll get in a car with someone who drank alcohol, and will die in a twisted, singed mess of metal, on the edge of some suburban housing estate.
  • Option C, she’ll drink too much, sneak home to bed, and vomit in her sleep, choking to death without anyone to help her.

I mean, I guess there’s a remote possibility that Flea will just have a drink, and everything will be fine. But I think we all know by now that I’m not the sort of parent to dwell on that outcome.

Research into Teens and Drinking

It doesn’t help that I’ve worked quite a bit with Drinkaware over the years, so I know how dangerous alcohol can be for many young people.

Did you know that 4,000 kids were admitted to A&E last year with alcohol poisoning? Or that one in ten fatal road accidents are caused by alcohol?

Did you know that the younger a child is when they first drink, the more likely they are to drink to higher levels as they get older? Or that they’re more likely to use alcohol to manage their emotions, and substantially more likely to have a negative experience caused by alcohol? Research shows that teens who drink perform less well on tests like spatial awareness, memory and vocabulary, compared to teens who don’t drink.

Generally, teens and alcohol are a scary combination.

When Should Teenagers Drink Alcohol?

In our household, the rule is zero alcohol before the age of 15.

If you ask Flea, this is because I’m mean and boring and everyone else’s Mum lets them drink whatever they want, actually.

To which I say..

Actually, my reason is that alcohol is harmful to children’s bodies, and those harmful effects are most significant before they’re 15.

Before you even start, please don’t tell me about France and how all the kids have wine there, because France also has some of the highest rates of alcohol-related cancer and liver disease in the world.

Letting teens drink alcohol at 13 puts them at risk. Alcohol can disrupt their brain development, their hormones and bone health. It can impact academic performance, not to mention mental health and emotional wellbeing.

Even when she’s at her most annoying, and claiming everyone else’s Mum is way cooler than me, I love my 13 year old too much to do that.

So for now, my line is that, “Your body is still developing and at the moment alcohol would be too harmful to you for me to allow you to drink.”

My personal belief is that 13 is also just too young for teens to drink alcohol. They’re not emotionally equipped to deal with the potential problems.

We all know that alcohol reduces inhibitions, and warps our ability to assess risk. If grown adults struggle to make good choices when we’ve been drinking, how can we expect a 13-year-old to do any better?

That’s why my rule is that 15 is the minimum age for my child to be allowed to drink alcohol for the first time.

Don’t Send Kids to Parties with Alcohol Free Beer

There’s also a third, pragmatic element to this rule.

Flea is one of the youngest in her school year. The chances are when she’s 15, there will be lots of 16th birthday parties. As a fellow August baby, I know how this feels. I remember being dropped off by my Mum at a friend’s 16th with a six-pack of Kaliber alcohol free beer and a cheery, “Remember, you don’t have to drink to be cool!

Thanks, Mum.

Obviously I ditched the beer at the first possible opportunity. Then I drank so much neat Bacardi I thought I might actually have thrown up my internal organs six hours later.

Communication is Key

Of course, like all parenting decisions, making a decision about teens and alcohol is about what’s right for your family. I firmly believe most of us are winging it, with good intentions and crossed fingers.

I’m not interested in scaring Flea. I don’t want to present alcohol as this terrible thing that she should NEVER do, because it will ruin her life. I’m saving that argument for underage sex, obviously. (just kidding).

But I hope that setting clear boundaries, and explaining why they’re there is enough to keep her alcohol-free for another year or two.

I want her to understand that when you drink safely, alcohol can be a positive part of everyday life.

Flea sees that I drink from time to time. We talk about the pros (it’s fun, and honestly, I might still be a virgin if it wasn’t for alcohol) as well as the cons (hangovers, poor decisions involving Portuguese waiters called George). She’s had a sip of wine and beer, and knows what it tastes like.

We’ve also talked about the practicalities of drinking alcohol when you’re a teen. I think one of the big dangers when kids drink is simply not understanding how much they’re drinking and what’s safe. So Flea knows what a measure looks like, and why a serving of wine is bigger than a serving of vodka, say.

Top Tips (Or Not)

Ultimately, rules about teens and alcohol only get you so far, and teenagers are liable to ignore them at times.

I tell Flea that if you play sports on a Saturday morning and you want to be picked for the team, then you really can’t be showing up late with a hangover…

Over time, I’ve also stressed the importance of being a good friend. We’ve chatted about helping friends who might have over-indulged, and when to ask for help. I frequently remind Flea there’s no situation so bad that she can’t call for help if she’s in trouble.

My last tip is to talk to other parents if they’re, you know, normal people.

When the issue of the right age for teens to drink alcohol cropped up, I chatted with the Mums of Flea’s friends. It’s good to understand that all the girls have nice, normal parents. While some of them may allow their kids alcohol on special occasions, I’m totally comfortable that they’d never give Flea alcohol without speaking to me first (and the same applies in reverse, of course).


I’d love to know what you think – when did you drink alcohol for the first time? And what are the rules for your kids? Do you have any tips? When do you think is the right age for teens to drink alcohol? 

7 thoughts on “When Should Teenagers Drink Alcohol?”

  1. This is really interesting, I didn’t know that about the impact of drinking under 15. I did live in France for a while though in my late teens / early twenties and in my experience, girls in particular just didn’t want to drink there. It seems to be more of a social thing here and that’s why it’s important that people experience it in their own time and with the support of their parents. It sounds to me like you’ve got the balance spot on.

  2. Here in Italy, people don’t tend to give that much importance to alcohol… I know people in their 40s who are happy to drink coca cola with a sirloin steak, and will make comments about you being an “alcoholic” when you order a second glass of wine!
    Hopefully, this general indifference counts for adolescents too (although I doubt it!). In any case, 15 sounds about right wherever you are…

  3. As for me, I tried alcohol for the first time at the age of 16 or 17 (I do not remember). But I clearly remember that I did not like it at all at that time. Over time, tastes change and I began to understand alcohol.
    I think the rule should be no alcohol up to 16-17 years old at all. Then you should totally control this process. No alcohol allowed except holidays and big parties till 20 years old.

  4. I actually can’t remember the first time I had alcohol because it would have been watered down red wine in France (my Dad was born and raised that way). The Christmas Malibu and coke would have been from around 11 and from 16 I would have been offered a small glass of wine with a meal. The result is I barely drink because it was never a big deal, it never felt like I needed it to prove I was grown up or to fit in. I have never been drunk, nothing more than a bit giggly. And now my teens are not fussed, they drink at parties but will often choose to be the one to look after their friends instead. This Christmas a bottle of Prosecco will spread between two adults, two older teens and my 13 yr old over dinner. It’s just not a big deal…

    1. I agree that in some (the best) cases being introduced to alcohol at home takes away the ‘forbidden’ nature.

      Unfortunately in other less successful cases and looking at the overall picture, kids who are introduced to alcohol younger, at home, WILL tend to drink more over their lifetime and have higher instances of alcohol-related illness and injury.

      I tend to think we all know our own family best and if it works for you, then that’s amazing!

  5. I raised my older two in the USA and although I think the 21 minimum age is ridiculous, it gets rid of any arguing when they’re at least under 18. It’s a pretty serious deal to be busted for under-age drinking; it goes on your permanent record and colleges/universities have access to it. I’m not saying kids don’t drink, obviously, but it makes the parenting side of it a lot easier because you just quote the law and the consequences. I am always aghast at kids as young as 12 and 13 having a drink, even though I grew up in England.

    1. I agree – I remember spending summers in the US at 18 and 19, and drinking was far less of a big deal in America, and even in Canada, where the age was 19.

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