Children, Christmas and alcohol – what’s the right thing to do? - Balance

Real Life

16 December 2023

Children, Christmas and alcohol – what’s the right thing to do?

It’s Christmas. A time to grab some much needed relaxation and hopefully spend some quality time with our families. But amid the celebrations, are we at risk of teaching our kids that you can’t have a happy Christmas without alcohol?

Alcohol is everywhere. It’s on our TVs, on the ad breaks in between football matches and in our cinemas when we take our kids to see the latest blockbuster. It’s on our mobile phones showing sparkly drinks and friends sharing their cocktail.

Walk into any supermarket right now and the towers of bottles and cans tell you exactly what they want you to put into your trolley first.

Being a parent is never easy. We worry about drugs and smoking and want to steer them towards safety. So we might wonder what is the right thing to do in the home when it comes to alcohol and our children?

Firstly the myth. With alcohol many parents believe if they give their children small amounts at a younger age it might take away the curiosity or help them to handle it. But evidence is clear this is more likely to give them a taste for it.

There are lots of good medical reasons to delay the moment they drink. Alcohol increases their risk of accidents and injuries. It can damage a child’s developing brain, liver, bones and hormones, as well as affecting their mood, mental and health.

But that first drink gives a clear message – it gives a green light to alcohol which can then become something that is harder to put back in its box in the New Year.

This at a time when school, college and jobs are so vital to our children’s futures.  We also know that once flexible rules are developed and children get a taste for alcohol, it can be more difficult to establish boundaries again and bring closer the day when they want to drink more.

We also know from some children and young people that they have felt pressured to have a drink at family occasions when they’re not bothered and would have preferred a cola or a lemonade.

The Chief Medical Officer’s guidance on drinking in childhood is clear: it is healthiest and best for children not to drink before the age of 18 – and certainly never before they turn 15. That means the very best for our children is to be alcohol free as long as possible – and let’s remember the vast majority of children do not drink.

As one dad we spoke to in his early 50s said: “I recall my dad’s 50th in the 1980s when I was 15 and was allowed a couple of beers. I came in from school the next day and actually believed  I could do it again! At that age you don’t always see the context of a one-off for a special occasion. You just think “I can drink now.”

“It’s similar as a parent. You are very aware that the first time they take a few drinks out, a door is opened that you can’t close. You suddenly worry more when they go out at night and hope they are staying safe. I’ve heard the horror stories from “sessions” – I’m very much of the mindset now that the longer you delay it the better.

What I notice from my older son’s peer group now is there is not an inevitability of drinking that there was in the 1980s and 1990s. Of course plenty do but more and more younger people prefer the gym or sports or just doing other things to getting smashed – and even for those who do drink it does not seem to be an “every weekend” thing either. My generation might have been the ones who binged and bar crawled en masse – the lads and the ladettes – but we don’t have to teach them that that is the only way.”

The other side of Christmas is thinking about our own actions when we drink and as parents, we can be positive role models. Nobody wants to give their children the message that Christmas is about drinking to excess, but we just need to be careful. Seeing parents drunk can make our children feel anxious, upset and unsafe, and the festive celebrations often mean children are more exposed to it.

It is positive that more parents are recognising the risks associated with alcohol and childhood. And more young people today are choosing not to drink and as parents we have an opportunity to encourage this.

Parents can visit to find out the facts and the myths about children and alcohol

 Susan Taylor, Head of Alcohol Policy, Balance

Our plea to parents is not to believe the myth that it is best to provide alcohol to under 18s at home in order to teach them to drink ‘responsibly’, and not to to use Christmas occasions as a reason to introduce children to alcohol.