Understanding alcoholism in adolescence, Teenage Drinking & Getting Help

Teen Alcohol Abuse in the UK

Teenagers in the UK are more prone than those in other regions of Europe to abuse alcohol, according to research from the European School Survey Project. Up to 54% of teenagers are thought to have indulged in binge drinking, a behaviour that is most likely to cause harm. A young person’s life can be destroyed by binge drinking, so it’s critical to understand why they started drinking in the first place in order to promote alcohol abstinence.

Why do some teenagers drink?

With age, youngsters are more likely to experiment with alcohol. For instance, in England in 2018, 14% of 11-year-olds reported using alcohol, compared to 70% of 15-year-olds.

Puberty is a time when risky behaviour is increasingly prevalent. It takes until 16 or 17 years of age for the logical “thinking brain” to fully develop, with additional “fine tuning” continuing until the early 20s.

One of the main causes of first-time drinking can be peer pressure and the desire to brag in front of peers. And popular culture can play a part too.

According to a recent study, teenagers who had watched more films depicting drinking were more likely to have tried alcohol and be binge drinkers than their peers who had watched less of this type of content.

Gender Differences In Teen Drinking

Although all teenagers face similar struggles with drinking, girls and boys have different triggers and potential consequences. In general, girls are less likely to binge drink or be charged with alcohol-related offences than boys are.

Both boys and girls have different motivations for binge drinking. Girls are more likely to admit to drinking to deal with stress, frustration, or anger. In addition, girls are more prone to drinking due to familial issues than due to peer pressure.

Risk Factors For Teen alcohol abuse

Adults frequently have romanticised memories of their adolescence. Even while this is frequently the greatest moment in a person’s life, it was not all bright summer days and innocence. Teenagers frequently lack the coping mechanisms to handle the obstacles they must confront, and life can be difficult for them. Teenagers may turn to alcohol for a variety of reasons, some of which we have highlighted here.

Young drinkers are more prone to eventually develop alcohol dependence than older drinkers. No one is immune from developing a problem, but certain circumstances may make abuse more likely. These can include:


Teens who have parents or siblings who drink excessively are four times more likely to experience their own drinking problems.

Growing Up in an Environment Where Alcohol Abuse is Normal Behaviour

Teenagers will believe this is standard behaviour if they grow up in a family where drinking is commonplace. Even if their parents warn them about the risks associated with drinking, adolescents are more likely to be influenced by what they see than what they hear. Teenagers are more likely to want to give drinking a try if they observe the adults around them enjoying it.

The Stresses of Being a Teenager

Adults often overlook how tough being a teenager can be. This is mostly caused by hormonal changes, but it may also be related to the confusion that results from leaving childhood and assuming adult duties. Teenagers must also deal with problems like bullying or a chaotic home. Alcohol may appear like an easy way out when under a lot of pressure.

Emotional or Physically Abuse

Some adolescents reside in homes where they experience emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. The teen could feel completely overwhelmed by the situation – this is something even adults struggle to cope with. Alcohol may seem like a simple solution to ease this suffering, and it may even initially seem to be helping.

Self-Medication for Mental Health Problems

It is typical for mental health issues to first manifest their symptoms in adolescence. The young person may not fully understand what is causing their emotional anguish – all they know is that drinking alcohol makes them feel better. Although it can be simple to overlook in the beginning, this kind of self-medication is actually making the condition much worse. By the time the person realises how much they have deteriorated, they are usually well on their way to addiction.

Peer Pressure

Probably the most frequent reason why young people start experimenting with alcohol is peer pressure to drink. It takes a lot of fortitude to resist this kind of peer pressure because doing so may subject one to mockery and even bullying.


Young individuals are more prone to drink significantly in order to fit in if they believe that alcohol makes them more social.

UK Drinking Culture

The most likely reason for such a high rate of drinking among teenagers in the UK is the culture that promotes this behaviour. It is frequently marketed as a good time and a way to meet people. Even the well-known TV soap operas are primarily focused on drinking at pubs.

Understanding The Motivation Behind Teenage Alcohol Use

Teenagers will always drink alcohol for a reason. Only once the motivation is understood can action be taken to assist the young person in changing their behaviour. Any attempts to address the issue without considering the driving force behind it are typically unsuccessful.

Adolescent alcohol use is not an acceptable rite of passage but a serious threat to adolescent development and health, as the statistics related to adolescent impairment, injury, and death attest.

The dangers of alcohol abuse to young people’s health

According to the most recent statistics, the majority of 11 to 15-year-olds in England have never drunk alcohol, despite the fact that many teenagers do.

The UK Chief Medical Officers (CMOs) suggest an alcohol-free childhood as the healthiest and safest option. The CMOs also state that even if it is not advised, youngsters shouldn’t drink alcohol till they are at least 15 years old.

It’s critical for kids who do drink to understand that alcohol seriously harms their development and health.

Young individuals are more vulnerable than adults to the negative effects of drinking. Drinking alcohol as a teenager can significantly raise the risk of harm to the growing brain because the brain continues to develop into the mid-20s. It can also lead to problems with alcohol later in life.

Binge drinking is when you consume a lot of alcohol in a short amount of time with the aim of getting drunk. (Binge drinking is also defined as drinking over the recommended level of drinking units).

Common effects of binge drinking include:

  • hangovers
  • headaches
  • nausea and vomiting
  • shakiness.

Binge drinking can cause young people to take risks and place themselves in risky circumstances, such as driving while intoxicated, swimming, and engaging in unsafe sex, in addition to raising their chance of experiencing short- and long-term health issues.

The danger of harm from alcohol is increased by drunk driving and other risky behaviours (such as injury or death).

Drink driving and Car Crashes

The two greatest causes of death for young adults are car accidents and drunk driving.

Alcohol has a significant impact on both drivers and passengers in fatal accidents. The main cause of death for teenagers is automotive accidents. About a quarter of those crashes involve a driver who is drinking underage.


Teenage drinking carries risks, including the potential for acute alcohol poisoning. This may result in low blood sugar, seizures, an increased risk of damage from accidents, or finding oneself in risky or vulnerable circumstances.

All of these factors lead to the emergency admission of underage drinkers to hospitals, which can occur after consuming only relatively small amounts of alcohol by adult standards. In fact, almost 10,000 under-18 patients were hospitalised in England alone in the two years beginning in April 2017 as a result of alcohol usage.

Teenagers are more prone to participate in risky behaviour since alcohol can lower inhibitions, which can lead to things like getting into fights, driving while intoxicated, or having unprotected sex.

Alcohol can also lead to a poor complexion, foul breath (due to the drink’s odour staying on breath), and weight gain at an age when beauty and self-image might feel all-important for adolescents. Weight gain, in particular, can easily become a long-term cause of serious health problems.

Unsafe sex, STDs and Sexual Assault

Alcohol clouds one’s judgement. If someone is so affected by alcohol or other drugs that they cannot freely provide consent – this is considered a sexual offence.

Teenage heavy drinkers among teenagers are more prone to engage in physical violence and sexual assault.

When they have consumed alcohol, young individuals are more prone to engage in risky sexual behaviours, such as having sex without a condom.

Risks associated with unsafe sex include:

  • exposure to sexually transmissible infections (STIs)
  • possible pregnancy.

Alcohol can impair brain development

Alcohol consumption can impact how the brain develops in those under the age of 25. Young people under the age of 15 are especially vulnerable. Teenage brains are still undergoing development, and the frontal lobe and hippocampus go through the most significant changes at this time. These regions are linked to addiction, impulse control, and motivation.

As a neurotoxin, alcohol has the potential to harm the brain. Absorbing vitamin B is one of the impacts of excessive alcohol consumption, which makes the brain less effective.

Drinking excessively over an extended period of time can cause a variety of illnesses known as alcohol-related brain damage (ARBI). Problems with learning, memory, and balance are just a few symptoms.

Brain Damage

The research suggests that binge drinking during adolescence can harm brain health in the long run. It may impair your motor, coordination, and memory skills.

Drinking alcohol and risk-taking

Risk-taking is more common among young people who drink. Alcohol has a crucial role in a number of dangerous circumstances, such as:

Mixing alcohol with other drugs

Risky alcohol consumption can be linked to the use of other drugs. It can be especially dangerous to combine alcohol with substances that also depress the central nervous system, such as heroin and benzodiazepines. It can raise the risk of overdose and cause a person’s breathing and heart rate to drop to risky levels.

Cannabis is one of the drugs that can increase risk-taking when combined with alcohol. Driving or engaging in other activities while intoxicated is risky since young people may hurt both themselves and others.

Preventing Alcohol Abuse in young people

There are several strategies for preventing teenage alcohol use disorders. One of the key approaches to achieve this is to encourage an understanding of underage alcohol consumption within the framework of human growth and maturation, taking into account gender, environmental, ethical, and cultural disparities as well as specific adolescent characteristics. Reducing the cultural influences that promote and encourage underage drinking can also help to prevent adolescents from consuming alcohol since a culture where teens feel that it is acceptable will lead them to believe that it is appropriate. This is another strategy to avoid underage drinking.

Another important component to preventing alcohol use disorder throughout adolescence is the responsibility of the government, to send a message to underage drinkers informing them how themselves and the rest of society strongly disapprove of underage alcohol use because of the severe consequences it can cause and also inform that it will not be tolerated.

According to research, there are a variety of crucial elements that can lower a young person’s propensity for dangerous drinking.

In addition to setting a positive example for their children, parents and caregivers can support their offspring by:

  • Encourage open communication and attempt to develop a healthy relationship.
  • Help them in developing a feeling of community through their family, their school, or their hobbies and activities (such as a sporting club).
  • Reinforce positive achievements and experiences at school.
  • Encourage them to develop a positive relationship with a reliable adult who is not a member of their family (such as an older relative or friend, teacher or school welfare officer).
  • Encourage them to look for ways to give back to the community.
  • Help them feel respected and cared for.

How parents can encourage responsible drinking

  • According to studies, children’s parents and caregivers are their most important role models. Children learn through imitation, thus it’s crucial to model responsible drinking habits like:
  • Drink moderately or not at all.
  • Don’t drink every time you socialise.
  • Never drink and drive.

How to talk to your teenager about alcohol

Parents, guardians, and teachers are advised to openly discuss the serious consequences of drinking with teenagers and other children as soon as they may be exposed to alcohol, whether within or outside the house.

It can be approached effectively by:

  • Make it clear that their health and safety are vital to you
    According to the UK Chief Medical Officers, abstaining from alcohol is the healthiest choice for adolescents and young children.
  • Give them information and facts – and be honest
    This can make it easier for your adolescent to accept your advice and direct them toward making responsible decisions.
  • Set boundaries as a vital part of their healthy development
    Sticking to agreed rules can encourage ‘self-policing’ and avoid uncertainty.
  • Have ongoing conversations about alcohol
    This can prevent your teen from thinking it’s unfair or unreasonable or seeming condescending.

A simple way to boost your credibility is to take a step back and think about your own drinking behaviour. Research shows that riskier drinking behaviours by parents are often copied by their children.

Teaching responsible drinking

Although you can’t stop young people from experimenting with alcohol, you can encourage responsible drinking habits as parents and guardians.

Suggestions include:

  • Be a good role model.
  • Teach your child about alcohol from an early age.
  • Help them to understand that stress can be dealt with in a healthy way that doesn’t involve alcohol.
  • Explain the downside of heavy and binge drinking (such as vomiting, head spins, passing out and hangovers).
  • Educate your teenager on the links between drinking and risky behaviour – such as the increased risk of accidents and injury, and how alcohol impacts the ability to make decisions.
  • Teach your teenager sensible tactics such as – how to say no, stick to the standard drink recommendations, pacing themselves, alternating alcoholic drinks with non-alcoholic drinks and not drinking on an empty stomach.
  • Talk about the dangers of drink-driving – plan some alternatives (such as catching public transport, designated drivers or calling home).
  • Encourage your teenager to talk with their friends about the dangers of alcohol, so they can come up with ways to look out for each other.

Teenagers, parties and alcohol

As teenagers mature, parties frequently become a part of their lives, which increases the likelihood that they may be exposed to peer drinking. If you have a child who’s reached this stage, there are things you can do to keep them safe:

Agree on a plan with your child in advance
If you allow them to leave, be sure there are clear repercussions for breaking your agreement. Remind them that if they take alcohol from your house without your permission, you would regard it as stealing.

Explain you need to check with the hosting parent
This allows you to ensure that the party will be overseen and that there will be limits on the amount of alcohol served.

If possible, talk to other parents
If drinking is restricted to what has been planned by the host, a party is less likely to get out of control.

Talk to any older siblings
Inform them that they shouldn’t participate in buying alcohol as a favour because doing so is probably against the law.

Explain why they shouldn’t drink any alcohol before they go out
It’s not a good idea to let your children drink before they go out because it increases the likelihood that they will also drink while they are out.

It’s illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to buy alcohol anywhere in the UK.

What if your child comes home drunk?

Take a deep breath – if they are under the influence of alcohol, it won’t be the right time to discuss it. Tell them to go to bed (after ensuring they are safe and show no signs of alcohol poisoning) and tell them, “We’ll talk about this tomorrow.”

Arrange a time the next day and ask them to tell you what happened. Tell them what you’re feeling after listening to them, whether it’s sad, furious, worried, disappointed, or anything else.

It’s critical to go over any concerns you’ve discussed regarding the hazards of alcohol – and to ensure that you follow the rules and consequences you’ve agreed upon.

The law on alcohol and under-18s

There are various regulations that pertain to underage alcohol purchases and consumption.

A variety of safeguards for young people’s safety and well-being are included in the law all across the UK.

Laws affecting under-18s cover topics like schooling, employment, care and health. These include rigorous age-controlled rules that limit the purchase and consumption of alcohol, given the negative effects alcohol use can have on children’s health and development.

Anywhere in the UK, purchasing alcohol when underage is prohibited.

There are valid justifications for making alcohol purchases by minors unlawful. Children and young people who drink alcohol run the danger of acute alcohol poisoning, an increased likelihood of engaging in violent behaviour, and damage to organs like the liver and brain that are still developing.

The Chief Medical Officers (CMOs) in the UK believe that the healthiest and most advantageous course of action is for children to grow up alcohol-free.

The law also specifies that it is prohibited for people under the age of 18 to consume alcohol.


Across the UK, if you’re under 18 it’s against the law:3

  • For someone to sell you alcohol
  • To buy or try to buy alcohol
  • For an adult to buy or try to buy alcohol for you
  • To drink alcohol in licensed premises, like a pub or restaurant (although there is a limited exception for 16 and 17-year-olds – see below)

Under-18s can be stopped, fined or arrested by police for drinking alcohol in public. The police also have the power to confiscate alcohol.

In England, Scotland and Wales, it’s not illegal for someone between the ages of five and 17 to drink alcohol at home or on other private premises. But this does not mean it is recommended.

The best advice for young people’s health and wellbeing is an alcohol-free childhood. If children do drink alcohol (even though it’s not recommended), it shouldn’t be until at least 15 years of age.

16- and 17-year-olds

In licenced establishments, a person 16 or 17 years old may consume (but not purchase) beer, wine, or cider with a meal (except in Northern Ireland). However, it is forbidden for anyone this age to consume spirits in a pub in the UK, not even with food.

If the licence holder or bar manager has authorised the sale of alcohol and it complies with any other requirements specified in the licence, 16- and 17-year-olds who work in a licenced bar, restaurant, or shop may serve alcohol.


Young people under 16 may visit bars or other locations where alcohol is sold if they are accompanied by an adult. This isn’t always the case, though. Additionally, depending on:

  • The specific conditions for that premises – for example, young people may only be allowed in certain areas, or at certain times
  • The licensable activities taking place there

In Scotland, it’s also illegal for under-16s to buy liqueur confectionery (e.g chocolates)


The law in Northern Ireland specifically states that ‘anyone under the age of 14 may only consume alcohol in a private house and only for medical purposes.’


It’s illegal to give a child under the age of five alcohol.

Regional differences in the law

The law varies a little bit depending on where you live in the UK.

This manual is based on material that is available to the general public on the websites of UK governments (correct as of April 2022). Use the links below to find the latest recent guidance.

  • For more information about the law in England and Wales go to gov.uk
  • For information about the law in Scotland, go to gov.scot
  • For more information about the law in Northern Ireland, go to NIdirect.gov.uk

Consequences of breaking the law

Anyone convicted of illegally supplying alcohol to someone under 18 would face a criminal record and could have to pay a substantial fine. Anybody else, including owners or employees of a pub or shop, parents or guardians, is subject to this.

Illegal alcohol consumption by anyone under the age of 18 may result in a criminal record or a fine.

Having a criminal record may hinder future job opportunities and make international travel more challenging.

Without going to court, there are additional actions the police can take.

For instance, the police have the authority to seize alcohol if they believe someone under the age of 18 is in possession of it in a public area. If young people get caught with alcohol they could face a social contract, a fine or arrest.

If the police suspect that alcohol has been or will be consumed in public by a person under the age of 18, they may also take it away from anyone, regardless of age.

The courts may also hold parents and guardians accountable if their child consistently causes difficulties by possessing or abusing alcohol.

Research on Teen Alcohol Abuse

The majority of research focuses on alcohol and its impact on individuals in general, primarily adults. Research on alcohol consumption among adolescents and the effects of binge drinking at a young age is limited to nonexistent. Teenagers usually develop a binge-like drinking style, and alcohol use rises rapidly between the ages of 12 and 21.

The results of these habits can then take many forms, such as driving accidents, substance use disorders, risky sexual activity, skipping school, and poor grades.

According to recent research, drinking alcohol can potentially result in long-term biological changes that can harm the developing teenage brain, including neurocognitive impairment.

Underaged drinking can cause higher risks for depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. If you’re going through puberty, it can also cause changes in your hormones. It can also disrupt growth and puberty. And if you drink too much you can die from injury or alcohol poisoning.

It also kills brain cells over time, which can cause behavioural changes, sleep deprivation, permanent damage to memory, and could eventually start to affect your grades. It can also lead to sexual behaviour, and could also lead to sexually transmitted infections, unwanted pregnancy, and sexual assault or rape.

It can also lead to these things: car accidents, falls or drowning, suicide, violence and homicide, being a victim of a violent crime, and many more accidents, that affect underage drinkers. And if a child drinks, they have a better chance of being an alcoholic when they are older. That means they might get drunk, be involved in drunken accidents, get into trouble with the law, their family, their friends, schools, and their love interest.

Alcohol Addiction

UK Teen alcohol and drug abuse statistics

In 2012, 27% of UK 16- to 24-year-olds drank very heavily at least once in the last week, more than any other age group.

There were 14,291 young people in contact with alcohol and drug services between April 2019 and March 2020. This is a 3% reduction from the number the previous year (14,777) and a 42% reduction in the number in treatment from 2008 to 2009 (24,494).

Around 4 in 10 young people in treatment (42%) said they had problems with alcohol (compared to 44% the previous year), 13% had problems with ecstasy and 10% reported powder cocaine problems.

There were 14,291 young people in contact with drug and alcohol services between 1 April 2019 and 31 March 2020. Two-thirds were male (67%), which was similar to the previous 2 years. The median age was 15 years old for both boys and girls. The number of younger children (under 14) in treatment remained relatively low (1,204, 8%).

Get Help For Teen Alcohol Problems

Teenagers can think they’re invincible. But alcohol is harmful to children and young people – drinking before becoming an adult has additional risks for health and wellbeing.

If you are worried that your teenager is finding it difficult to deal with the stresses or strains of growing up in modern-day Britain, it’s likely that they may mistakenly believe that drinking will help them. And perhaps they witnessed grownups drinking to relax after a stressful day.

If you are a teenager or know one who is struggling with alcohol abuse or addiction problems, help is available. There are many programs that specialise in treating addicted teens. Contact one of our addiction specialists on 0800 999 1083 to discuss treatment options.

Last Edited: September 19th, 2022
Clinically Reviewed: July 26, 2022
Clinical Reviewer


BACP accredited psychotherapist with 16 years experience working in mental health specialising in psychodynamic person-centred therapies treating those with a range of mental health disorders including anxiety, depression, OCD and Addiction.