How Does Alcohol Affect Children?

In the UK, we do not have a drinking culture that allows children to enjoy alcohol, like the Spanish or the French for example. Here, children don’t drink until they get to their teens, usually. So how come British children are so affected by alcohol?

Teenage drinking rates are the lowest for years

A combination of better education, societal changes, high prices, and difficulty obtaining alcohol have made the current generation of British children the least likely to be admitted to hospital for drink-related illness in a very long time. They drink less, less often. In the 1990’s and 2000’s a culture of binge drinking emerged in the UK that was very dangerous. Modern kids do not appear to be following this trend.

If they are not drinking, how are they being affected?

Alcohol-related crime is falling in the UK, but it is still a huge problem. There is no other single factor that contributes so much to crime as alcohol. It is one of the most costly drains on our society. Children do not escape from the effects of alcohol.

Over half of domestic and non-domestic violent offences are committed when the offender is under the influence of alcohol. About 1 in 5 children have been exposed to domestic abuse, according to the NSPCC. Over half of serious case reviews, where the welfare of the child is critically assessed, involve domestic abuse. If we take the fact that about half of domestic abuse is alcohol-related, that means that a quarter of serious case reviews involving children involve an adult under the influence of alcohol.

Alcohol is a disinhibitor, it lowers the threshold for violence and other harmful behaviour. Alcohol makes the likelihood of someone committing a crime greater.

The sad conclusion is that many thousands of children and adults could be spared violence and abuse if alcohol was better controlled, and if there was more and better help for people with alcohol-related problems.

In 2016/17, the NSPCC reported a 30 per cent rise in the number of calls concerning the welfare of children who may be affected by their parents’ misuse of alcohol or drugs. This is probably not due to an increase in people drinking around their children, more likely it is that people are more aware of the dangers.

Children of alcoholics

The children of parents who have substance abuse disorders face a lot of challenges that most children do not have to face. Parents who are acting irrationally, have poor memories, are absent, violent, or more concerned about drink than their kids are unfortunately more common than anyone would like. Alcohol has a very negative effect on a person’s ability to care for themselves, let alone a child.

To understand alcoholism as a disorder that can be treated helps deal with some of the stigma and can make it easier for children to get help. However, the majority of children who grow up in households where the parents drink dangerously or to excess never encounter the social services.

Children who grow up around alcoholism are more likely to become alcoholics or abuse other drugs themselves. Having a parent who is an alcoholic can affect school grades, emotional wellbeing, coping abilities, and the general health of the child.

Children who are exposed to substance abuse are often neglected and/or abused. Parents who drink a lot often find maintaining relationships more difficult. Alcohol is a leading factor in the breakdown of relationships, which can negatively affect every aspect of a child’s life for a very long time.

Children who drink

If a child starts drinking before the age of 13, they have a 40 per cent chance of becoming an alcoholic at some point in their lives.

Each day in England, 33 children are admitted to hospitals with drink related problems. Alcohol kills more children than all the major illegal drugs combined. About 1 in 10 boys will have unsafe sex under the influence of alcohol.

Drinking excessively before adulthood can permanently damage a child’s brain. They can have memory loss, impaired cognition, mental health issues, sexual health problems, and damage their hearts and livers.

There has been a sharp increase in the numbers of people in their 20’s being admitted to hospital with liver failure in recent years. This is due to their drinking as teenagers. Although children may be drinking less and less often, there are still many who drink dangerous amounts.

Children learn a lot of what they do from the adults around them. If a child is raised in a home where nobody drinks, nearly 80 per cent of them will never have drunk alcohol. Conversely, where children are raised around 3 or more drinkers, only 31 percent have never tried alcohol.

Parental attitude is one of the biggest factors: 86 per cent of children who drank in the last week had parents who did not mind them drinking.

Foetal Alcohol Syndrome

Drinking while pregnant is very harmful to the unborn foetus. A child whose mother drank to excess during pregnancy has a high chance of developing foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). 70 per cent of people with FAS over the age of 12 will be charged or convicted of a crime. Children with FAS often have emotional issues, are developmentally delayed, and most will need support living well into later life.

FAS is entirely avoidable: if you do not drink, the child cannot develop FAS. However, about 20 percent of women drink during pregnancy, and 2 to 5 per cent of children have some form of FAS. The potential of that child can be destroyed by their parents drinking.


If you are concerned about a child’s welfare, please call the NSPCC on 0808 800 5000. It is free, confidential, and will not appear on your telephone bill.


Drinkline is a confidential helpline that helps anyone who is concerned about theirs or someone else’s drinking. It is free to call and they are open Monday – Friday, 9am to 11pm on 0300 123 1110.