Alcohol and teenagers

Group of three girls doing a toast with beer
Group of three girls doing a toast with beer

Group of three girls doing a toast with beer

The teenage years are when many young people start experimenting with alcohol. Socialising and drinking tend to go hand in hand for many young people. It’s a common concern for parents, and many grapple with striking the balance between keeping your teen healthy and safe, and giving them the freedom to experience their teenage years to the fullest. It's important to role model good behaviours and setting some clear expectations,so your teenager learns to manage the effects of alcohol. 

This can help if you:

  • want to know what is typical teenage alcohol use and behaviour
  • want to know the effects of alcohol on the developing brain
  • have concerns about your child being around alcohol
  • want to support your child and their social life, while feeling confident about their safety.

Teenagers and alcohol

Alcohol plays a significant role in Australian culture. Whether it’s celebrating a sporting win, capping off a hard day at work, or acknowledging the completion of six years of high school at Schoolies Week– drinking is a big part of Australian life.

The flip side is that excessive or irresponsible alcohol consumption can have serious consequences. From drink driving, unsafe sex, masking mental illness and even impairing brain development, it’s critical that teenagers understand the risks associated with alcohol and learn ways to make sure that if they are drinking, they do it safely.

What does alcohol do to a developing brain?

Alcohol affects a young brain more than a fully developed adult brain. It’s not until around the age of 26 that the brain is fully formed. Drinking alcohol can cause irreversible changes to the developing brain, particularly to the area of the brain that is responsible for rational thinking. Damage to this part of the brain during its development can lead to learning difficulties, memory problems, and impaired problem solving. Therefore, the longer your teenager delays using alcohol, and the less they drink, the better their brain functioning will be now and in later life.

Other risks of alcohol use for teenagers

Other impacts of alcohol in teenagers are similar to those seen in anyone that drinks alcohol. Alcohol is a depressant, which basically means that it slows down the brain. The more alcohol consumed, the greater the impacts will be. This can lead to:

  • slurred speech
  • poor judgment
  • lack of coordination
  • slower reactions
  • confusion
  • heightened sense of confidence
  • poor sleep.

This means that, in addition to the impacts on brain development, alcohol can be risky for teenagers by impacting on how they function effectively, recognise risks and make good decisions. They’re therefore more likely to put themselves in risky situations, which may result in harm to themselves or others.

Knowing the risks and drinking anyway

With its role as a key ingredient in many celebrations and social rites of passage, it’s likely that at some stage your teenager will drink, in spite of all the risks. Recent research has shown that 75% of 12-17 year olds admit to having tried alcohol.

The only way to completely reduce the risk of alcohol during the teenage years is to encourage your child not to drink. But, realistically, knowing that your child will probably be exposed to alcohol, it’s important that you set clear boundaries about how they use it. Read Things to try: Alcohol for tips on doing this.

The role of parents in reducing the harm of alcohol in their teenager

Given that most young people will be exposed to alcohol by the time they turn 18, parents have no excuse not to be prepared and set very clear expectations and boundaries about what is acceptable for your child in early teens and beyond. It’s an important conversation to have and one that you’ll have to repeat throughout the teenage years. Furthermore, by role-modelling responsible drinking behaviours yourself, you’ll be setting good standards for your child and they’ll learn from you.

It’s often thought that permissive parenting with alcohol – that is offering your teenager alcohol in moderation and when they’re in a safe environment, like the family dinner table – will lead to better behaviours with alcohol. However, evidence tells us this just isn’t the case. Parents should actively encourage their child to delay drinking alcohol for as long as possible.

Two things for parents to keep in mind are:

  • There is no safe amount of alcohol for the developing brain. The best thing is for young people not to drink at all, and delay the age they start drinking as much as possible.
  • If young people do drink alcohol, it’s important to talk to them openly about the risks and their behaviours. There are ways they can minimise harm to themselves and others, and help them stay safe. Find out more about these strategies by reading Things to try: Alcohol.

Page last review by ReachOut Parents Clinical Advisory Group on