Teenagers and alcohol

Group of three girls doing a toast with beer

Many young people start experimenting with alcohol during their teenage years, especially when they’re socialising. It can be difficult to strike a balance between keeping your teen healthy and safe and giving them the freedom to experience their teenage years to the fullest. By role modelling moderate drinking behaviours and setting clear expectations, you can teach your teen how to manage the effects of alcohol.

Why do teenagers drink alcohol?

Alcohol plays a significant role in Australian culture, and teens are generally aware of that. Most teens will want to join in on the cultural activities that their peers or role models are doing, so they may drink to celebrate an achievement or to fit in at a party.

If their drinking behaviour becomes excessive or irresponsible, it can have serious consequences. It’s important that teenagers understand the risks associated with alcohol and, if they still choose to drink, to learn ways to do it safely.

What are the effects of teenage drinking on the brain?

Alcohol affects a young brain more than a fully developed adult one. Developmental processes are still happening in the brain until around age 26.

If your teen drinks alcohol, it can cause irreversible changes to their brain, particularly to the area that’s responsible for rational thinking. Damage to this part of the brain before it’s fully developed can lead to learning difficulties, memory problems and impaired problem solving. The longer your teenager delays using alcohol, and the less they drink, the better their brain functioning will be, both now and in later life.

Other risks and effects of alcohol on teenagers

Alcohol can affect how teenagers function, how they recognise risks, and their ability to make good decisions. Underage drinking makes teens more likely to put themselves in risky situations, which may result in harm to themselves or others.

Alcohol is a depressant, which means that it slows down the brain. The more alcohol is consumed, the greater the effect. Other consequences of underage drinking can include:

  • slurred speech

  • poor judgement

  • lack of coordination

  • slower reactions

  • confusion

  • heightened sense of confidence

  • poor sleep.

What are the long-term effects of underage drinking?

The Alcohol and Drug Foundation cite the following as long-term effects of drinking: 

  • worsening of mental health conditions

  • poor memory and brain damage

  • difficulty getting an erection

  • difficulty having children

  • liver disease

  • cancer

  • high blood pressure and heart disease

  • needing to drink more to get the same effect

  • physical dependence on alcohol.

What to do if your teenager is drinking alcohol

It’s likely that at some stage your teenager will drink, in spite of all the risks.

The only way to eliminate the risks associated with alcohol use during the teenage years is to encourage your child not to drink. It can be useful to talk to them about the pros and cons of underage drinking, and talk about ways of having just as good a time without alcohol.

But, knowing that your teen will probably be exposed to alcohol, it’s probably more realistic that you set clear boundaries about how they consume it.

Reducing the harmful effects of alcohol on teenagers

Parents can help reduce the harmful effects of alcohol on their teenager by setting clear expectations about what is acceptable and unacceptable drinking behaviour during their child’s early teens and beyond. This conversation is one you’ll have to repeat throughout their teenage years. Set good standards that your teen can learn from by role modelling responsible drinking behaviours yourself.

It’s common for parents to think that if they allow their teenager alcohol in moderation while they’re in a safe environment, such as a glass of wine with dinner at home, this will lead to a better relationship with alcohol. But research tells us this isn’t the case. Parents should actively encourage their teenager to delay drinking any alcohol for as long as possible.