Parenting teens: Alcohol and young people

Parenting teens: Alcohol and young people

Alcohol is our most common recreational drug. Those under 15 years of age are at the greatest risk of harm from drinking, and not drinking in this age groups is especially important. For young people under 18 - the safest option is to delay drinking for as long as possible.

Key points to remember

  • for young people under 18, the safest option is to delay drinking for as long as possible
  • if under 18 year olds do drink, they should always be supervised, drink infrequently and at levels usually below and never exceeding 2 standard drinks
  • those under 15 years of age are at the greatest risk of harm from drinking, and not drinking in this age groups is especially important

Alcohol and young people ... what's the big deal?

"It's only alcohol"
"It didn't do us any harm"
"It's a rite of passage"
"Kids are expected to experiment"

Alcohol is a huge part of kiwi culture and it would be hard to find any social gathering where alcohol does not play a significant role. Be it a christening, wedding, funeral, birthday party or dinner party, our kids see that alcohol is usually there AND often consumed in excess. Is it any wonder that they regard alcohol as important to their gatherings and celebrations as well?

Although experimenting with alcohol and other drugs can be common among teenagers, it’s not always safe - or legal. So it’s important to start talking about alcohol and other drugs with them from an early age and to keep talking about it as they grow up. As a parent you have a major influence on your teenager's drinking behaviour and you can help prevent them from drinking alcohol or from its harmful use. Your influence on their attitudes and decisions about alcohol is greatest before they start drinking.

Being such a common product it is easy to forget that alcohol is also a depressant drug that may cause serious side effects, particularly for young people. While small amounts of alcohol may be social and fun – larger amounts can be dangerous and even fatal. Alcohol affects young people differently to adults because they are still developing - physically, mentally, and emotionally. It affects the brain's ability to function efficiently and perform complex tasks such as driving, operating machines etc. This is particularly important for teenagers while they learn some of these tasks.

Early drinking

Young people are often pressured to start drinking socially but the earlier they start the greater the chance of problems later. Research has found that young people who started drinking alcohol before the age of 14 were more than 5 times more likely to have problems with alcohol addiction or abuse, compared to those who first used alcohol at age 21 or older.

Those under 15 years of age are at the greatest risk of harm from drinking, and not drinking in this age groups is especially important.

For young people under 18 - the safest option is to delay drinking for as long as possible.

The law and supply of alcohol to minors

The minimum legal age for purchasing alcohol in New Zealand is currently 18 years, but there is no legal drinking age in this country. It is however illegal for anyone under the age of 18 years (a minor) to buy alcohol. Under the new Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act 2012, it is also illegal to supply alcohol to a person under 18 years of age unless:

  • the supplier is the parent or legal guardian of the minor - and the alcohol is supplied in a responsible manner, OR
  • the person supplying the alcohol has the express consent of the parent or guardian of the minor (as defined in the Care of Children Act 2004), and supplies the alcohol in a responsible manner

Parents are encouraged to talk with other parents about alcohol and their kids. As 'a person' who has been given express consent to supply alcohol, (for example, a parent who is organising an occasion), consideration should be given to responsible supply and hosting practices such as food provision, non alcoholic options, the strength of alcohol supplied, arrangement for transport and the nature of the occasion. (See 'Parties' for more ideas).

Young drivers

Drivers under 20 years of age are subject to a zero alcohol level. This means they must not drink any alcohol or they face serious penalties. For young drivers the task of driving is more demanding than for experienced drivers. Alcohol reduces your ability to pay attention when you are driving - even when you have had only a little to drink. As young drivers have to spend more of their attention to the driving task than experienced drivers, the effect of alcohol on their driving performance is greater.

Image of pages 40,41 from booklet

If you choose to supply young people with alcohol, then …

  • to minimise the risk of harm to young people aged 15-17, it is best not to supply alcoholic drinks with a combined total of more than 2 standard drinks. In practice  this means just 2 regular sized cans of beer (4 percent) or premixed spirit (5 percent)
  • you could also provide lower strength products instead, such as 'light beers' of 2.5 percent alcohol or less. This means you could supply no more than 4 regular size cans or bottles under the current guidelines
  • there are also a number of non alcoholic beers on the market that are commonly available through supermarkets and liquor outlets. These may be supplied in moderation with little risk of harm due to their minimal alcohol content

Binge drinking

This is one of the most dangerous types of drinking and one of the most common in New Zealand. It is classed as drinking more than 5 standard drinks per occasion (usually a 4 hour period). It also refers to the rate of drinking - that is - consuming drinks in quick succession. It has also been called 'drinking to get drunk' or 'preloading' – which means people drink to get drunk before they go out on the town or to a party. In New Zealand nearly half of drinkers aged 12 to 24 usually drink more than 4 standard drinks on a single occasion, at least doubling their risk of injury in the 6 hours after drinking.

The main risks to young people from drinking too much include being involved in violence, other crimes, sexual assaults, unprotected sex, accidental injury, and alcohol poisoning (which can cause death).

If things go wrong…

In recent years there have been a growing number of young people who have died because they drank too much alcohol. As a result – an Auckland coroner11 commented that parents and caregivers should be aware of the following ...

  1. At very high levels, alcohol can cause a person to become unconscious. As a result that person has less control of their breathing and is in danger of their airway becoming blocked. That person may also throw up and breathe in the vomit - and die as a result. If your teenager becomes unconscious, place them in the recovery position.
  2. If a person becomes unconscious due to the effects of alcohol, the safest first aid treatment is to dial 111 within New Zealand (use the appropriate emergency number in other countries), and ask for an ambulance. If an ambulance is not available someone will need to keep watch over the unconscious person until they have recovered.
  3. If you drink 250mls (quarter of a 1 litre bottle) or more of 40 percent spirits over 30 to 60 minutes, you may have consumed a potentially fatal dose of alcohol without feeling drunk.

If you then become unconscious, you will need medical assistance immediately.


Image of pages from booklet

The content above is based on pages 36-46 below (PDF, 1.06MB) from the Whānau pack: Tools for families and parents with teenagers.

Image of pages from "Whanau pack" booklet

Related information on this website

Parenting teens: Alcohol facts
Parenting teens: Alcohol guidelines


See the full list of references for 'Whānau pack: Tools for families and parents with teenagers'

Acknowledgement and copyright notice

The Paediatric Society of New Zealand and Starship Foundation are very grateful to Northland District Health Board (NDHB) for permission to reproduce this content from the Whānau pack: Tools for families and parents with teenagers (PDF, 4.16MB). NDHB own the copyright in this material and it must not be copied or reproduced except as expressly permitted by NDHB. 

Image of the cover of "Whanau pack" booklet

This page last reviewed 26 February 2015.
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