Kids allowed to sip alcohol risk becoming early drinkers, study says

Kids who report sipping alcohol are more likely to report more drinking by the ninth grade, according to a new study.

“We found an association between early sipping and later outcomes even controlling for factors that we expected to account for the association, including an underlying disposition for problem behavior and parents’ own alcohol use,” said lead author Kristina M. Jackson.

Jackson, of the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and her coauthors used web surveys of 561 Rhode Island students, beginning in middle school when the students were age 11. At that point, almost 30% of kids said they had tried sipping alcohol, most often provided by their parents at a party or special occasion.

Alcohol used as part of a religious service was excluded.

By the time the students entered high school in ninth grade, about 25% of the early sippers said they had had a full alcoholic drink, compared to less than 6% of the other kids.

Nine percent of the sipping group had gotten drunk or binge drank, compared to about 2% of other kids, the authors reported online March 30 in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

“We have found in other analyses of this sample that sippers receive fewer messages disapproving of adolescent alcohol use and they have a greater perception of alcohol’s availability,” Jackson told Reuters Health by email. “They also report greater parental conflict, lower parental monitoring, and having more friends who drink alcohol.”

This is only an average trend, and there is variability in whether providing teens with alcohol will have detrimental effects down the road, Jackson said. But alcohol does affect the developing brain, so young adolescents should avoid it altogether, she said.

Some parents who do not drink at all may be recovering alcoholics, and their children are at an increased risk of developing alcohol dependence as adults, Jackson said.

Kids who sip alcohol at an early age tend to have more problems with delinquency and poor school achievement, and may be living in households where alcohol is consumed more frequently or heavily, she said.

“As a parent myself and someone who does research in this area, I find this work very important,” said Elizabeth D’Amico, a senior behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California, who was not part of the new study.

“The bottom line is that how youth view alcohol will affect the choices they make – we know this from countless studies that look at family and peer influence on drinking, and from our intervention work that helps youth better understand how to make healthy choices,” D’Amico told Reuters Health by email.

“In our own research, we have found that two-thirds of the children in our sample had sipped or tasted alcohol by age 12,” said John E. Donovan of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, who was also not part of the new study. “The present study … dispels common misperceptions among parents that giving a child sips or tastes of alcohol is harmless and may even somehow protect them from later problems with alcohol.”

There are exceptions such as religious occasions, so it’s important to make sure that children know when drinking alcohol is acceptable and when it is not, she said.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism supported this research.

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