Children and alcohol – What are the dangers?

“Mum, can I have a sip of your wine?” You may recall when you were growing up that parents gave a few sips of watered down wine or beer to a child or teenager at family braais or gatherings. There’d be some laughs and knowing smiles, particularly when the child grimaced and hated the taste of the alcohol and perhaps some concerns and jokes if the child loved the taste.

For some, the rationale is that if you get introduced to alcohol slowly it becomes less of a novelty and children will then not feel pressured to overdo it later on. But times have changed and there’s now arguments against early exposure.

While the price of alcohol goes up every year with the Finance Minister increasing the ‘sin taxes’ in his Budget Speech it doesn’t appear to be enough of a deterrent and alcohol is available to children and teenagers regardless of the cost.

The Third South African National Youth Risk Survey conducted in 2011 surveyed learners from grades 8, 9, 10 and 11 in the nine provinces. According to the study, nearly half (49%) of learners had admitted to ever having alcohol in their lives, while 32% had drunk alcohol in the month preceding the survey. Worryingly, 25% had engaged in binge drinking in the past month.

Nationally, 49.2% [46.5 – 52.0] of learners had drunk one or more drinks of alcohol (e.g. a beer, a glass of wine, or a ‘tot’ of brandy) in their lifetime. Significantly more white (77.6% [68.2 – 84.8]), coloured (73.3% [65.9 – 79.5]) and Indian (68.9% [60.3 – 76.5]) learners had ever used alcohol when compared to African learners (45.7% [42.9 – 48.5]).

The prevalence of learners who had ever used alcohol increased with the grade. Significantly more grade 11 learners (58.1% [52.5 – 63.5]) and grade 10 learners (52.0% [46.0 – 57.9]) than grade 8 learners (38.4% [32.9 – 44.1]) had ever used alcohol. Learners in the 13 years and under age category (38.1% [31.4 – 45.3]) had a significantly lower prevalence of having ever used alcohol when compared to 16 year olds (54.3% [49.9 – 58.7]), 17 year olds (53.1% [48.7 – 57.4]) and 18 year olds (52.5% [47.3 – 57.6]).

With respect to age of initiation, 12.4% of learners reported having had their first drink of alcohol before the age of thirteen years.

Communicate with your child to protect them

It’s clear from the survey that you can’t constantly protect your child from being exposed to alcohol but according to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), you can help them reject using alcohol. They recommend the following:

  1. Listen to your children: The more open your relationship with your children, generally the more likely they will feel comfortable talking to you about substance abuse and listen to your advice.
  2. Spend quality time with them: Listen and don’t judge. Keep them busy but don’t pressure them to always be the best and win in sport, for example.
  3. Teach them about friendship: Kids don’t get drugs or alcohol from strangers – often they get pressured by their friends to drink or use drugs. “You must teach children it’s OK to say no to friends. Peer pressure is more an internal issue – seeing friends getting drunk and wanting to be like them,” says SADAG. During the Youth Risk Survey, learners were asked about their reaction if they were at a party and some of their friends were drinking alcohol. Nationally, the most prevalent response was to say “No thank you” (52.2% [50.2 – 54.2]). Encouragingly, only 6.6% of learners felt pressured to drink.
  4. Know who your child’s friends are: Invite your child’s friends over to your house and get to know them and their families.
  5. Build your child’s self-esteem: If your child feels good about him/herself they are less likely to turn to drugs or alcohol for comfort. Offer praise if they have done a good job. But if they have done something wrong rather address the issue – don’t criticise. Give them tasks to do. Spend one-on-one time with your child. Remember to tell and show them how loved they are.

A bit of harmless ‘fun’

So should you offer your child that ‘little tot’ at the next family braai? Katherine Brown, policy director at the Institute for Alcohol Studies, was quoted as saying in an article in the UK’s Daily Express newspaper that there is no evidence that it helps children develop a sensible attitude to drinking.

The article adds that studies show the complete opposite: the earlier a child gets exposed to alcohol, the more they will drink as adults. What’s more, teenage heavy drinkers can experience problems with bone density, growth, hormone development and liver function. It can also have devastating effects on the brain. Studies show that teenage drinkers find it harder to retrieve information than those who don’t drink at all. Experiments done on adolescent rates found that they are more susceptible to memory and cognitive problems if given alcohol than adult rats.

So overall, starting them young is not a good idea. The good news is that SA’s Youth Risk Survey showed that learners weren’t keen on keeping up the habit of drinking alcohol. Nationally, among the learners who had drunk alcohol in the month preceding the survey, 52.7% [49.9 – 55.5] reported that they intended to stop drinking alcohol in the near future (in the next six months).