That little sip of wine or beer that some parents offer their kids at a wedding or on New Year’s Eve may muddle messages about alcohol, according to a new study by researchers at the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies at Brown University. The scientists surveyed middle school students for three years to learn whether even a taste in early childhood was a predictor of risky behavior in high school.
The Internet-based study, published in the April 1st issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, included more than 500 Rhode Island school students. More than one-third of the kids surveyed reported trying their first sip of alcohol by the sixth grade, and most said that their first taste took place at home. Wine and beer were the most commonly tried beverages, usually at a special occasion, such as a wedding or a holiday, and adults were the primary source of the alcohol. Nearly three-quarters of the children were offered sips by their own mom or dad.
The study also showed that kids who sipped alcohol by the sixth grade were five times more likely to down a full alcoholic beverage by the time they reached 9th grade—26% of sippers consumed a full drink versus 5.5% of non-sippers. The earlier sippers were also four times more likely to get drunk or binge drink by early high school, and trying alcoholic beverages earlier in life also raised a child’s risk for trying other substances.
Even when the researchers controlled for other factors, such as risk-taking behavior, the drinking habits of parents, and a history of alcoholism in a parent, kids who’d sipped before sixth grade had higher odds of alcohol use by their freshman year of high school.
The take-home message: Offering a child a sip of your beverage may send the wrong message, says study author Kristina Jackson, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Behavioral and Social Sciences at Brown School of Public Health.
"Parents should provide clear, consistent messages about the unacceptability of alcohol consumption for youth,” Jackson advises. “Younger teens and tweens may be unable to understand the difference between drinking a sip and drinking one or more drinks. Certainly there are exceptions, such as religious occasions, so the most important thing is to make sure that children know when drinking alcohol is acceptable and when it is not.”
The context of alcohol use is important, says Oscar G. Bukstein, M.D., M.P.H., medical director at DePelchin Children’s Center and a clinical professor of psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Texas Health Science Center-Houston, who was not involved in the research. “Often, by allowing children to sip or try alcohol on ‘special occasions’, the message delivered may be one of ‘this is how we celebrate’, we drink,” Buckstein says.
He says that sipping may be associated with increased access to alcohol, too, or more lax parent attitudes and that undermines any anti-drinking messages kids hear.
April 21st is the national day to talk with your kids about alcohol. Visit Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s (MADD) Power of Parents page to learn more.
by Mary Brophy Marcus, health writer, APA