Talking about drugs and alcohol with your child

This page offers some helpful advice for how to talk to children and young people in ways that are suitable to their age and development.

You offer the first line of defence and can have a strong, positive effect by starting the conversation earlier, and keeping it ongoing.

Don’t assume that you’ve had ‘the talk’! Three-quarters of parents of 11-16 year olds thought they had had a conversation about drugs with their child, but less than half as many (36%) 11-17 year olds said they remembered such a conversation.

Scroll down for helpful tips and advice for talking to your child about drugs and alcohol.

The most important things to remember are:

  • Most young people don’t use drugs: 76% of young people aged 11-15 say they have never taken drugs.
  • More young people are choosing not to drink alcohol or are waiting until they are older – however, those who do drink are drinking a lot more than 10 years ago.
  • Evidence has shown that scare tactics do not work: it is important to discuss the consequences of alcohol and drugs without overstating the case.
  • Avoid being confrontational: it’s important that young people don’t feel accused. Listen to young people’s views and offer your own in an honest and respectiful manner so that they feel comfortable coming to you in the future.
  • Don’t underestimate your influence: you can have a strong, positive effect by starting the conversation earlier, and keeping it ongoing.

Alcohol and drugs advice by age

It’s always better to start these conversations early and deliver age appropriate information as they grow up, rather than waiting to talk to your children in their teenage years.

Read below for alcohol and drugs advice by age group.

Younger than 9 years

At this age children should not be drinking, not even a little. The Chief Medical Officer says that, “Children and their parents and carers are advised that an alcohol-free childhood is the healthiest and best option.”

The role of parents

At this age children’s perceptions of alcohol are usually negative, but they will notice when people around them are drinking. Make sure your relationship with alcohol is responsible.

As a parent the worst thing you can do is to ignore the conversation and brush it off. Offer a listening ear to any and all questions. Reassure them and make sure you are non-judgemental.

What you can do

Children may be learning in school about dealing with different types of risky situations: for example that medicines can be dangerous as well as beneficial; that friends may try and persuade them to do things that are unsafe; and that some adult behaviours such as smoking  are harmful to health.

It will help them if these issues are also discussed at home from time to time.

9-11 years

Four out of every five 11 year olds have never smoked, drunk alcohol or taken drugs, and just one in ten have ever had a whole alcoholic drink.

The role of parents

In a survey of 11-12 year olds, around half said they had never had a conversation with their parents about drinking, smoking, drug use or sex and relationships. A companion survey of parents suggests that many of their parents would say they had had a conversation. Little and often is the best approach.

What you can do

This is a good time to talk to kids about the impact of alcohol on the body. You could also explain how it feels to be drunk, for example, you might do silly things or feel sick. You might want to talk about the difference between drinking in moderation and abusing alcohol. Make sure your child understands that different types of alcohol have different strengths.

11-14 years

By age 11-14, children may be experimenting with alcohol. By the time they are 14, three-fifths of young people will have had an alcoholic drink. However, the Chief Medical Officer recommends that young people under 15 should not drink alcohol at all.

When it comes to other drugs, this is a key age. A third of 14 year olds have tried smoking, and a fifth have taken another drug – most commonly cannabis or sniffing gas, glue, aerosols, or solvents.

The role of parents

While parents may feel their children pay less attention to them now, two-thirds of 14 year olds see their parents as a helpful source of information about drugs, and 75% as a helpful source of information about drinking.

Don’t assume you’ve had ‘the talk’: three-quarters of parents of 11-16 year olds thought they had had a conversation about drugs with their child, but less than half as many (36%) 11-17 year olds said they remembered such a conversation.

Parents and carers play a vital role in keeping children safe from the harms of drugs and alcohol, and shouldn’t underestimate their influence, or how long it lasts. Your attitudes and behaviour help shape your child’s views on drink and drugs.

15-17 years

If 15-17 year olds drink alcohol it should be:

  • under supervision,
  • infrequently (certainly on no more than one day a week)
  • never more than 2-3 alcohol units at a time for a young woman and 3-4 units for a young man.

Fewer young people are smoking, drinking and using drugs now than in the past. Just over one in ten 15 year olds is a regular smoker (smoking at least once a week) down from one in five a decade before.

However, by age 15, three-quarters of young people have had an alcoholic drink. The majority drink a few times a year or not at all, but a minority (around a third) drink at least once a fortnight.

Some young people, unused to the effects of alcohol, drink to dangerous levels. In one year, ambulance services respond to an estimated 16,000 call-outs involving 13-17 year olds who have been drinking.

Around a fifth of 15 year olds have tried cannabis, while a much smaller percentage (7%) have tried Class A drugs.

Just under half say they have been offered a drug at some point, and around half think it is easy to get hold of illegal drugs if you want to.

The role of parents

At this age, peer pressure can become paramount and it’s vital that you help your child think of ways to deal with situations that may lead them into being pressured into drugs and alcohol. Make sure your child knows it’s okay to say no.