According to new findings from the Millennium Cohort Study, almost half the children said they had tried more than a few sips of alcohol by age 14; three years earlier, the figure was only 14%.
Researchers from the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, at the UCL Institute of Education, and Pennsylvania State University analysed data on more than 10,000 children born in the UK at the turn of the new century (the Millenium Cohort Study), looking at reports of parents’ drinking habits and attitudes to drinking, linking these to information on family structure, employment status and parents’ educational attainment.
The report, published on Friday 15 December, reveals that parents of white children who were employed, had more educational qualifications, and drank alcohol themselves, were more likely to allow their adolescent children to drink than unemployed parents, those with fewer educational qualifications, and ethnic minority parents.
As the festive season approaches and alcohol is often shared at the dinner table and family parties, it is important to note that, despite the common belief that giving your child sips of alcohol will teach them to drink responsibly, previous research has shown that those who start drinking early are more likely to fail at school, have behaviour issues and develop alcohol and substance problems in adulthood.
“Parents of socially advantaged children may believe that allowing children to drink will teach them responsible use or may in fact inoculate them against dangerous drinking. However, there is little research to support these ideas.”
– Professor Jennifer Maggs, the study’s lead author
Katherine Brown, Chief Executive of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, was quoted in the press release saying: “It is worrying to see that this advice may not be getting across to parents, who are trying to do their best to teach their children about alcohol. We need to see better guidance offered to parents via social marketing campaigns and advice from doctors and schools. Parents deserve to know they can have a positive impact, and can reduce health harms associated with young people drinking.”
This new report echoes some of the findings of our own research conducted earlier this year. Mentor commissioned UK Market Research to investigate adults’ consumption of alcohol in the presence of children as part of our wider research into the relationship between substance use and kinship care.
Our research revealed that 81% of parents and carers consume alcohol in front of their children, and that 40% of the adults surveyed had consumed alcohol to deal with stress, anxiety or sadness. A third of those adults first consumed alcohol before the age of 15.
There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that parental drinking has a huge impact on young people’s attitudes to, and consumption of, alcohol and other drugs.
The Millenium Cohort Study released figures in 2016 showing that, compared to children whose mothers did not drink, “children whose mums were light or moderate drinkers had a 60% increased risk of drinking at 11, while those whose mums were heavy or binge drinkers had an 80% increased risk. A father’s drinking appeared to have about half as much impact, regardless of whether he was a light to moderate or heavy/binge drinker.”
Children’s perceptions of the harms of alcohol also seemed to be an important factor in determining early drinking or drunkenness: “The more dangerous a child thought alcohol to be, the less likely they were to drink. Children who did not see drinking alcohol as a risky activity and who also had a heavy drinking mum were much more likely to be drinking alcohol at 11.”
These findings were echoed in the journal Psychological Medicine, which published an Australian research study earlier this year which said children who are given alcohol by their parents are more likely to be drinking whole alcoholic drinks by the time they are 15 or 16.
What parents and carers can do
The research suggests that, if children are permitted to drink, even in smaller or diluted amounts, as part of a family celebration or the festive season, it may follow that they perceive alcohol to be less harmful, possibly increasing the likelihood that they will drink or get drunk at an early age. This seems to be even more likely if the child’s mother in particular is also a moderate or heavy drinker.
Parents and carers play a vital role in keeping children safe from drugs and alcohol, and they shouldn’t underestimate their influence, nor how long it lasts. It is becoming ever clearer that adults’ attitudes and behaviour help shape children’s views on drink and drugs.
For advice and information on how to approach these topics with your child, click here.
‘Parents who allow early adolescents to drink’ by Professor Jennifer Maggs and Professor Jeremy Staff is published on the Journal of Adolescent Health website here ($).
The press release from the Institute of Longitudinal Studies at UCL is available on their website here.
For ongoing updates from the Millenium Cohort Study, visit the Child of Our Time blog.