Adolescent Alcohol and Parenting

Most parents experience concern and anxiety when their children and their peers start to drink alcohol. This column is focussed on what parents can do to help their teens navigate this stage. I’m going to start with a key message – don’t give alcohol to teenagers, and think carefully about your own drinking. Several other important strategies will also be outlined.

Most New Zealand youth start drinking alcohol before the legal purchase age of 18, with a quarter of 14 to 17 year olds reporting they had consumed more than five drinks on their last drinking occasion. Drinking before the age of 18 is not illegal in New Zealand, as we have a purchase age rather than a drinking age. It is illegal to provide alcohol to minors however if you are not their parent or guardian. Where do teens obtain their alcohol from if they’re not allowed to buy it? Well a few do manage to purchase it themselves but the majority obtain it from their parents, with the next most common sources being friends aged over 18.

We know that most parents providing alcohol to their adolescent children aren’t intending to encourage intoxication. Providing small amounts to teach responsible drinking (that you don’t have to get drunk when drinking) has intuitive appeal. And it’s what those sophisticated French do right? The evidence really doesn’t support this as a good idea however. Providing alcohol for your kids doesn’t mean you control how much they drink either – it doesn’t prevent them spending their own money buying additional alcohol. Leaving aside for a moment the fact that parents can at times supply alarming amounts of alcohol to their kids (a six pack of 6% RTDs for example) you may just end up subsidising an increased level of consumption.

In 2010 Siobhan Ryan and colleagues from the Centre for Youth Mental Health, University of Melbourne, reviewed studies examining factors that reduced the risk of problematic drinking. Their findings provide an excellent guide for ways to minimise risk in your family. Here are the things that were shown to work: parents modelling responsible drinking themselves, not providing alcohol to the child, disapproval of adolescent drinking, use of consistent moderate discipline, knowing the whereabouts and activities of your adolescent, having a warm positive relationship with your child in which they feel supported and an established communication style where the adolescent feels they can talk freely about matters of interest or concern. Note only the first two of these are things specific to alcohol. Just as important is the quality of your relationship and broader parenting skills. Surprisingly, things that don’t make a difference are talking to your children about alcohol and having rules that prohibit drinking by your adolescent.

If a parent has a problem with their own drinking then clearly this is going to make it difficult for their children to take what they say seriously and in fact may make it harder for the parent to even think about the issue. Even at the milder end of the problem scale parental drinking can set a poor example. One of the things that concern us most about drinking among young people is when it is combined with driving. But think about this: What is a youth to make of their parents expressing concern about this but then having a couple of drinks after work and then grabbing the keys to drop them off at sport practice? Many parents won’t think twice about this but you can bet their children have noticed.

The Alcohol Law Reform Bill currently making its way through parliament will provide some assistance in this area, with a new requirement that adults have explicit permission from the parents of an under 18 before supplying alcohol. Countering this small but useful gain is the missed opportunity represented by the failure to raise the drinking age from 18 to 20. Not only does this have a great impact on the drinking habits of 18 and 19 year olds but it also maintains the access to alcohol of under 18s who have peers or siblings aged 18 or 19 (this expansion of drinking to include those a bit below the actual drinking age is referred to as the “de facto drinking age”). Other recommendations that have been left out of the proposed legislation are substantial reductions to the blanket advertising of alcohol and introducing a minimum pricing regime.

Most adolescents drink to a risky level at some point, and while there can be serious consequences in most cases they are able to successfully navigate this period. Parents can have a big impact on the choices they have, the decisions they make and the support they receive if things do go wrong.

If you would like to know more about this topic the Alcohol Drug Helpline (0800 787797) provides support and information for people concerned about their own drinking or the drinking of others. See also “Alcohol, Your Kids, and You. A Guide for Parents” produced by the Health Promotion Agency (


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