What’s a safe age to let kids drink?


Comments   |   Blog, Substance Abuse

I was recently asked at what age is it safe for a parent to offer their teenager alcohol?  The question was innocent enough, from a parent who believed that if they were the one to introduce their kid to drinking, at least it could be in a controlled setting.

My answer: there is no safe age.  The developing adolescent brain is really at the highest risk for lifelong addiction.  A recent paper from Germany,[1] where the legal age of drinking is 14 with a parent belies the mythology that if it is not forbidden fruit then kids have better outcomes.  This study looked at 306 participants exploring the connection between age at first drink (AFD) and stressful life events (SLE).  The results are important to know:  the younger the kids had their first drink, and the more stress they were exposed to, the more alcohol they consumed when older than kids that started drinking later and had less stress.

I see this a lot in my program. Kids that drink come in under a lot of stress, some of it resulting from the drinking itself. The question always asked is, “Did you start drinking because you felt stressed out, or did you get stressed out because you started drinking?”  While some kids start drinking “just because it’s there,” those that have a hard time stopping invariably create more stress in their already stressful lives.  There really is not a safe age to start, but this study out of Germany suggests that the younger you begin, the more you are likely to drink, and drink heavily.

We now know that alcohol has an effect on the brain, inhibiting the very neuroplasticity that makes the brain so marvelously adaptive.  In a compelling article from Spain, [2] where the legal age of drinking is between 16 and 18, the argument was made that the neurotoxic act of drinking alcohol subverts that neuroplasticity, leading to serious brain impairments in cognition and behavior.  Not only is the acute stage of intoxication a cause of often bizarre and dangerous behavior, but it can lead to a pattern of such behavior which may actually reflect a pattern of the circuitry in the brain.

At what age is it safe to let a kid drink at home?  Perhaps not until they are no longer a kid.


[1] Age at first drink moderates the impact of current stressful life events on drinking behavior in young adults. Blomeyer D, Buchmann AF, Schmid B, Jennen-Steinmetz C, Schmidt MH, Banaschewsk T, Laucht M. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2011 Jun;35(6):1142-8. doi: 10.1111/j.1530-0277.2011.01447.x. Epub 2011 Mar 15.

[2] Mechanisms involved in the neurotoxic, cognitive, and neurobehavioral effects of alcohol consumption during adolescence. Guerri C, Pascual M. Alcohol. 2010 Feb;44(1):15-26.