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!”
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.
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?