Should Children Drink Alcohol?

Alcohol is all around us in society and western culture, and for many children, seeing their parents drinking is a normal part of daily life as they grow.

Alcohol is still, by far, the most commonly used substance worldwide and alcohol use accounts for 5.3% of all deaths in the world every year. It contributes to over 200 medical conditions and is responsible for 5.1% of the global burden of disease and injury

The NHS has clear guidelines around children drinking and children are not advised to drink alcohol before the age of 18. Drinking Alcohol as a child is the cause of a range of health and social problems. 

Health risks of children drinking alcohol

  • Childhood drinking can cause damage to a child’s physical and mental health. Alcohol can have a detrimental effect on the still developing organs of a child, including their liver, brain, kidneys, growing bones and even their hormones.
  • Early childhood drinking, before the age of 14 is associated with increased health and social risks, including alcohol-related accidents and injuries, antisocial behaviour, problems at school and in the home, and suicidal thoughts and ideation.
  • Drinking at a young age can also lead to antisocial and risk-taking behaviour such as sexual promiscuity, teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, increased likelihood of drug use, school and employment problems and trouble with the law, for example drink driving and aggression.

What does the UK law say on children drinking?

The NHS website states the law on children drinking as follows:

It is illegal to give alcohol to children under 5. 

It is illegal to drink alcohol in public and the police can stop a person under 18 and issue a fine or arrest them, if they are found to be drinking alcohol in public.

If a person is under 18, it is against the law to:

  • have someone sell alcohol to you
  • attempt to buy alcohol from a shop or pub
  • ask an adult to buy you alcohol
  • consume alcohol in a pub, cafe or restaurant.

The law states that if you are 16 or 17 and accompanied by an adult, you can drink (but not buy) beer, wine or cider with a meal.

The developing adolescent brain and alcohol

Scientific research has shown that the human brain does not stop developing until the age of 25 and our decision-making abilities are not fully developed until that age also. So although a mature teen might look like an adult, they have not fully developed their decision-making and judgement processes. Heavy drinking in the adolescent years can interfere with this process and have long-lasting effects:

  • Poorer inhibition levels
  • Poor performance in working memory tests,
  • Smaller grey and white matter brain volume,
  • Altered brain activation during tasks 
  • Altered dopamine reward processing.

Recent research published in World Psychiatry, states that children who began drinking alcohol before age 15 are 4X more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder than children who do not start drinking until the age of 21.

It is reported that introducing children to alcohol early on in life, could lead to the development of alcoholism. The research seems to show that the younger a child is when they have the first drink – the more likely they are to develop alcoholism later in life, and the more likely they are to develop alcohol related illnesses.

View of an alcohol addiction specialist

Castle Craig’s founder and former Medical Director, Dr. Margaret McCann – puts forward her point of view:

“Alcohol is the UK’s favourite drug. For many, it oils the wheels of our social life. We use it mostly at dinner, sometimes lunch, after work or in the evenings. It’s a drug that we use more whilst we’re on holiday, or perhaps celebrating, and we do often consume more in our youth – especially in our early 20s.”

Alcohol is addictive

“Yet alcohol is also an addictive drug, and some of us will inevitably turn the corner from enjoying alcohol to craving it, needing it and drinking it despite the serious problems it causes to our health, our family and our relationships. This is what happens to an addict – and it is the addict’s family who often suffer the most from the havoc that addiction can wreak.

Research shows that the likelihood of developing alcoholism runs in the family. The genetic make-up that an individual inherits partly explains this pattern, but lifestyle also plays a role.”

How can parents help their children?

“What this means for parents is that they have a crucial role to play in teaching their children the right relationship with alcohol. This doesn’t mean “wine weaning” – which is the practice of encouraging children to drink from an early age by giving them watered down wine. There is no evidence that this sort of practice helps to create a good relationship with alcohol later in life.

After many years of experience I would say that parents should not encourage their children to drink at all – not until they are well into their teens.  The reason for this is simple – at some point in all our lives we need to learn to say “no” to alcohol.  This might be after the second glass of the night, during pregnancy, or after several years of misusing alcohol.”

Learning about peer pressure

There are a lot of social pressures out there encouraging us to say “yes” and have a drink, and “yes” is a message that our children will inevitably hear and learn from society as they grow up and move away from home. But saying “no” to alcohol is a lesson that can only be taught at home. At some point in our lives we need to learn to say no to alcohol – and the best place to learn that is at home, from our parents.

As children move into their mid to late teens – the rules can be relaxed, but drinking should only be encouraged at home, within a safe family environment.”

Related sources:

1. World Health Organization . Global status report on alcohol and health 2018. Geneva: World Health Organization, 2018. []
2. Dawson DA, Goldstein RB, Chou SP et al. Alcohol Clin Exper Res 2008;32:2149‐60. [PMC free article] [PubMed[]

 2020 Oct; 19(3): 393–394.
Published online 2020 Sep 15. doi: 10.1002/wps.20786 

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