Teenage drinking | Drinkaware (2024)

Although many teenagers experiment with alcohol, the latest statistics show that the majority of 11-15 year olds in England haven’t ever tried alcohol.1

The UK Chief Medical Officers (CMOs) recommend an alcohol-free childhood as the best and safest option. And - although not recommended - the CMOs also say if children do drink alcohol, it shouldn’t be until at least 15 years of age.

For teenagers that do drink – it’s important to understand that alcohol has serious effects on their health and development.

How alcohol affects a teenager's health and development

Teenagers can think they’re invincible. But alcohol is harmful to children and young people - drinking before becoming an adult has additional risks for health and wellbeing.


Risks associated with teenage drinking include the possibility of acute alcohol poisoning. This can cause low blood sugar, seizures, greater chance of accidental injury, or ending up in vulnerable or dangerous situations.

All of these contribute to underage drinkers being admitted to hospital as emergencies, which can happen after drinking very modest amounts of alcohol, by adult standards. In fact, in England alone, more than 10,000 under-18s were admitted to hospital because of alcohol in the two years starting April 2017.2

As drinking alcohol can lower inhibitions, it’s also more likely that teenagers might engage in risky behaviour and can result in things like getting into fights, drink-driving or having unprotected sex.

And at an age when appearance and self-image can feel all-important, alcohol can also result in bad skin, bad breath (due to the smell of the drink lingering on breath) and weight gain3,4 for teens – and it’s something that’s true for older drinkers too. Weight gain, in particular, can easily become a long-term cause of serious health problems.

Learn more about the health risks of underage drinking

Brain Development

A particular risk for teenagers is the potential effect of drinking on the young brain, with teenage years being an important time for brain development.5

There is some evidence that shows binge drinking at under twenty years old can cause changes to the brain which affect concentration and learning, as well as encouraging higher levels of risk taking and impulsiveness. It can also increase the chance of anxiety, which can continue into adulthood.6

These effects can mean that a teenager doesn’t do as well in school, resulting in lifelong negative impact on their potential.

People who start drinking regularly at a young age are more likely to have alcohol related problems as an adult.7

Why do some teenagers drink?

Experimenting with alcohol becomes more common as children get older. For example, in England in 2018, 14% of 11-year-olds said they had tried alcohol compared to 70% of 15-year-olds.8

Risky behaviour is more common during puberty. The development of the rational ‘thinking brain’ is not fully completed until 16 or 17 years-old, with more ‘fine tuning’ right into the early 20s.9

If you’re concerned your teenager is struggling to cope with the pressures or worries of growing up in Britain today, it’s possible they may wrongly think drinking is a way to cope. And they might have seen adults ‘drinking to cope’ with life stresses.

Find out what you can do if you’re worried, and what help and support is available for teenagers here.

Peer pressure and wanting to show off in front of friends can be major factors in contributing to drinking for the first time.10 And popular culture can play a part too.

A recent study found that adolescents with the highest exposure to films that show drinking were more likely to have tried alcohol and more likely to binge drink that their peers that hadn’t seen as much of this type of content.11

Get the latest statistics on underage drinking

How to talk to your teenager about alcohol

Parents, guardians and teachers are encouraged to talk openly with teenagers and other children about the serious risks associated with drinking as soon as they could be exposed to alcohol, either in or outside the home.

A good way to approach it is to:

  • Make it clear that their health and safety are vital to you
    The UK Chief Medical Officers’ advice is that the healthiest option for teenagers and children is not to drink.
  • Give them information and facts – and be honest
    This can help your teenager understand your advice and guide them towards making responsible decisions.
  • Set boundaries as a vital part of their healthy development
    Sticking to agreed rules can encourage ‘self-policing’ and avoid uncertainty.
  • Have on-going conversations about alcohol
    This can stop your teenager feeling it’s unfair or unreasonable, or coming across as a lecture.

A simple way to boost your credibility is to take a step back and think about your own drinking behaviour. Research shows that riskier drinking behaviours by parents are often copied by their children.12

Take the Drinking Check to discover more about your own drinking. If you decide to cut down, a good way to start is by drinking less at home – it has lots of health benefits for you, as well as setting a good example for your children.

Read our full guide on the best way to talk to children about alcohol

Teenagers, parties and alcohol

As teenagers get older, it’s not unusual for parties to become part of their lives – and that can mean they’ll start to be exposed to drinking amongst their peers. If you have a child who’s reached this stage, there are things you can do to keep them safe.

If they want to go to someone else's party

Agree a plan with your child in advance
If you decide they’re allowed to go, have clear consequences if they break your agreement. Remind them that if they take alcohol from your house without your permission, you would regard it as stealing.

Explain you need to check with the hosting parent
This can let you be sure the party will be supervised, and that there are limits on the amount of alcohol.

If possible, talk to other parents
A party is less likely to get out of hand if any alcohol is limited to what has been arranged by the host.

Talk to any older siblings
Explain they shouldn’t be involved in buying any alcohol as a favour – it is likely to be breaking the law.

Explain why they shouldn’t drink any alcohol before they go out
Allowing your child to drink before they go out isn’t a good idea – as you can’t be sure if they will drink when they are out, it increases the chance of them getting into trouble.13

It’s illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to buy alcohol anywhere in the UK.

If they want to host a party

Decide if alcohol is age-appropriate
If you decide some alcohol is ok, make sure it’s within the CMOs’ guidelines and stick to the plan.

Discuss and agree a plan in advance
Although teenagers may want to be left on their own, it’s reasonable for you or another adult to be at the party venue (even if it’s not in the same room).

Talk to other parents
If you’re going to allow any alcohol at the party, letting them know your plan can help them decide if they’re comfortable for their child to attend.

Keep an eye on things
Ultimately, you are responsible for making sure the party is safe. Keep an eye out for things like alcohol being smuggled in in soft drink bottles. You will also want to remove any alcohol stored in cupboards where the party is happening.

What if your child comes home drunk?

Take a deep breath – if they are under the influence of alcohol, it won’t be the right time to discuss it. Tell them to go to bed (making sure they are safe and don’t showsigns of alcohol poisoning) and say “We’ll talk about this tomorrow.”

Next day set aside a time and ask them to tell you what happened. Listen, and then tell them what you're feeling – whether that’s upset, angry, worried, disappointed, or anything else.

It’s important to go over any issues you’ve discussed about the dangers of alcohol – and make sure you stick to the rules and consequences you’ve agreed.

The facts on underage drinking and the law

The NHS website has more advice on talking to your child about alcohol.

Teenage drinking | Drinkaware (1)

Further advice and information

Arming yourself with strategies and tips can help you or a loved one take small steps towards big results.

Talking to your child about alcohol Ways to prevent your child from drinking underage The law on alcohol and under 18s Understand why some young people drink alcohol

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[3]Yeomans, M.R. (2010). Alcohol, appetite and energy balance: is alcohol intake a risk factor for obesity? Physiology &Behavior, 100(1), 82-89.

[12] IPSOS Mori 2016, Drinkaware Monitor: Teenage drinking and the role of parents and guardians. Accessed 05/06/17

Last Reviewed: 28th April 2022

Next Review due: 28th April 2025


Tips to change your relationship with alcohol

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