Part 1:Parenting Series

When is the right time to drink – do you let your teens try it or deny it?

As the parent of a teen, I know first-hand how much the topic of teenage drinking can weigh on your mind. We can’t ignore the fact that our young people are likely to show interest in alcohol at some stage. So, when is it Ok for them to try a drink?

Ultimately the answer to that question is up to you as a parent but in Part 1 of this 3-part Parenting Series, we have pulled together some top tips for you to consider.

As parents we should absolutely delay our child’s introduction to drinking alcohol for as long as possible. Until our early 20s, people have an increased sensitivity to alcohol as our bodies are still developing. The human brain, like all your vital organs, is also not fully developed until you are in your mid to late 20s, which means regular heavy consumption may result in impaired brain development at what is a critical growth phase. This can have long-term health and wellbeing impacts including issues with learning, memory, planning, thinking, and emotional stability. Their livers will also still be growing which means they are likely to be more “sluggish” in the way they process alcohol vs the healthy adult liver we refer to with our standard drink guidelines.

Talking to your kids about alcohol and setting boundaries and expectations to keep them safe, can help to delay drinking but we recognise this can be a really daunting task for parents. To help with this, we really liked DrinkWise Australia’s 5 Point “DELAY” Plan which offers practical advice on how to be a positive influence and to delay your child’s introduction to alcohol. You can read more about it here but in a nutshell, here’s what we took from their very helpful recommendations:

D: Discuss the issues

The best thing we can do as parents is educate our teens about the health effects and harm alcohol can cause and encourage them to hold off drinking until they are at least 18.  Research shows that parental provision of alcohol to underage teens (anyone under 18 years old) does not protect them against harmful alcohol consumption.  In fact, there has been evidence to show early introduction may actually lead to increased binging and alcohol-related problems throughout their lives so take time to talk about the fact that you can have plenty of fun without drinking alcohol, regardless of age.

Your teen might say “but all my friends are drinking” but know that most kiwi parents are just as reluctant to let their teens drink as you are. There are also laws regarding the supply of alcohol to minors in NZ that you should both be aware of.  Our Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act sets the minimum legal age for the purchase of alcohol in New Zealand at 18 years, but there is no minimum legal drinking age.

In other words, although those under 18 are unable to legally purchase alcohol themselves, they are legally permitted to consume alcohol as long as it is provided with consent of their parent or guardian.

It is however a criminal offence for anyone (peers, a friend’s parent, aunty, older cousin, boss etc) to supply alcohol to someone under 18 years old without prior approval from their parent or guardian so be mindful of this if you are ever hosting teen parties at your place.

E: Educate by example

Positive guidance and role modelling is one of the greatest powers we have as parents. Research shows that parents have the single greatest impact on shaping their teens attitude to alcohol and future drinking behaviour, followed by peers and the type of drinking occasion.

Kids are interested in what’s going on around them and even if they don’t appear to be engaged or listening, they will be watching to see how you, their role model(s) use alcohol. They will also observe the boundaries you set in place for yourself – ensuring you have a designated driver when you go out, not drinking on an empty stomach, drinking plenty of water etc. The role alcohol plays in your life will therefore have a major effect on how they conduct themselves so if you don’t want your kid to think drinking to excess is cool and acceptable, demonstrate responsible drinking yourself.


They will also observe the way your family and friends behave around alcohol, so if your teen observes a family member or friend behaving poorly in social situations don’t be afraid to discuss it with your teen. Ask your teen what they think about it and what they would do. This makes for a much more informed discussion and avoids another dry old lecture from mum or dad!

L: Listen and engage

Show interest in your teen’s upcoming activities and discuss these together. It gives you a great opportunity to set and agree some clear expectations.  Getting to know their friends, and their friends’ parents can also be an advantage as it enables you to discuss and develop a common position on things like drinking alcohol so that your kids are hearing a strong and united voice.  If they don’t agree with your position, at least they know your views and will be better placed to respect them.

At some stage, your teen may question or challenge you about your own drinking behaviours. If they ask you about alcohol and what it’s like to drink answering truthfully will build trust, especially if you expect the same from them! If they asked about being drunk, don’t glorify intoxication but talk about some of the lessons you have learnt the hard way.

Ask them how they feel about you (their parents) drinking alcohol?  What attitudes do they have about alcohol? This will help you reflect on your own drinking behaviours, open up communication with your kids and set expectations for you and your teens to act responsibly in the future.

A: A good relationship

Linked to the L step above, keep the lines of communication open with your teen. This can be easier said than done, but research shows that Parent-child relationships characterised by emotional warmth and support, trust, involvement and attachment are associated with lower levels of adolescent alcohol misuse. Be there to support them but don’t be afraid to say ‘no’. As much as you may want to be your teen’s ‘best friend’, it’s more important to be a responsible parent.

Solid relationships will also help you to challenge unfounded statements like “You’re the only Mum who won’t let us drink at a party”. Trust me, most parents don’t support providing alcohol for under-age parties, but if your teenager insists it’s the truth, ask them for the names and numbers of some other parents and have a chat to them directly so they know your views too.

Also key in establishing and maintaining these relationships is showing your teens that you can enjoy yourself without alcohol. Alcohol should never be the focus of a get together and you should avoid people and places that will have a negative impact on your kids’ attitudes to alcohol. It all comes back to quality role modelling and education early on before their peers and stronger social pressures take hold.

Y: Your expectations

One of the greatest challenges that parents can face is setting boundaries and establishing rules for their teenage children around drinking alcohol. Every family is different, so your boundaries need to be aligned with what’s important to your family and its values. Involving your teen in the development of these expectations is key as it will help them to understand why the rules exist in the first place. They may not like the rules you set, but it is vital that they know what your concerns are and how you can work together to address them as a united “team”. Here are 5 simple steps to help you develop a set of ‘Family Rules’ that work for you:

  • Do your research & be aware of your legal obligations – ensure that you understand the potential for damage to developing bodies, and how early introduction may be linked to issues with alcohol later in life
  • Have a conversation as parents/caregivers first so you can get alignment on how you want to handle this discussion with your teen. If you can’t get alignment between you as parents/caregivers, consider seeking input from your preferred Healthcare Professional to help guide you.
  • Sit down with your teen and explain yourself.  Tell them about the risks involved and your concerns about their physical, psychological and social health, and ensure they also understand your legal obligations. They may not agree, but at least they will understand why you want to create the ‘Family rules’ in the first place
  • Negotiate and agree a simple set of ‘Family Rules” together with your teen. This should also include clear consequences for when/if the Family rules are broken. These rules may need to be re-negotiated from time to time as your teen matures so you can make sure they stay relevant and engaging.
  • Reward good behaviour – give credit where credit is due and recognise your teen when they show maturity and follow the ‘Family Rules’. Just like when they were young kids, what we focus on and commend grows stronger so nurture the behaviours you want to see more of in your teen with attention, praise, quality time together or maybe a simple hug/high five.


At the end of the day, your number one motivation as a parent is to keep your kids safe and healthy so when it comes to alcohol remember the risks and be responsible – even if it makes you unpopular. Your teens brain and body will thank you for it eventually!!

The Alcohol&Me Team