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Giving your child a ‘sip’ of alcohol: What does the research say?

Even if they don’t necessarily agree with the research, most Australian parents are now aware that when it comes to alcohol and young people the message is ‘delay, delay, delay’. Put simply, when it comes to brain development the later your child has their first drink, the better. As I’ve written many times before, drinking alcohol during adolescence doesn’t cause ‘brain damage’ per se, it reduces their potential. If you want your child to be the best they can be, you should try your best to ensure their first drink happens as late as possible. But when we say ‘first drink’, what do we actually mean by that? Are we talking about a full glass or a sip? Is it the first drink that causes the potential problems or regular drinking over a period of time? The issue is complicated and I’ve tried to assist parents to make their own decisions in this area by highlighting up-to-date research findings around the parental provision of alcohol. One issue I haven’t covered is around ‘sips’ of alcohol …

Earlier this week I was contacted by a Mum (let’s call her Sue) who was having an issue with her husband in this area. This is an edited version of the email she sent through to me:

“I’ve attended a number of your talks and finally got my husband to come with me to hear you earlier this year. I truly thought we were on the same page when it came to alcohol and had discussed how we were going to deal with parties when our children hit that age. We also agreed that we should try and delay their first drink for as long as we could. Neither of us are big drinkers but my husband occasionally has a beer or two on the weekend. Recently we went to a family gathering and he was drinking outside with his two brothers and our eldest son, who is now 10, completely out of the blue asked him if he could have a sip. Without even thinking about it, he handed him the glass and let him try the beer. I didn’t say anything at the time for many reasons but did raise my concerns later that night. For some reason he didn’t see what the problem was – “It was just a sip” he said. “He was with family, it wasn’t a party and he didn’t drink much.” I’m concerned that we will be sending mixed messages if we allow sips. I know you have said that it is important for us to have a united front when it comes to alcohol. Do you have any advice?”

When it comes to this issue there are studies that have been conducted that have found that sipping alcohol, particularly when they are very young (by the age of 10) certainly appears to be associated with increased risk of early adolescent drinking and binge drinking. It is an under-researched area, however, and the authors of these studies stress that it may not only be the actual sips, or the age that they first try alcohol that could play a role in the development of future problems, it could also be linked to who they are with when it occurs (i.e., are they doing that in a family context, as in Sue’s case, or with others?).

We know that parental provision of alcohol is increasing in this country. For most adult Australians, when it comes to their first drink, they are most likely to have obtained it from a friend, an older sibling or the like – most would not have had it given to them by a parent. So why do today’s parents do it and do we know anything about why they choose to give their child a ‘sip’?

An Australian study by Wadolowski and colleagues (2016) examined the area of parental supply of sips of alcohol and the results were interesting. It looked at those aged 12 years and older and didn’t look at what effect supplying these small amounts had on a child’s future drinking behaviour (although I’m sure a paper is coming on that looking at the data this study collected) but rather why parents do it. Their conclusions were as follows:

  • “Parents may believe supply of a small amount of alcohol will protect their child from unsupervised alcohol use with peers” i.e., if I give my child a sip it will protect them from drinking more with their friends when they are not with me
  • “Parents who perceived that their child engaged with substance-using peers were more likely to subsequently supply sips of alcohol” i.e., if you believe your child is hanging out with drinkers, you’re more likely to consider giving your child a sip believing that it may be protect them from the potential risk of unsupervised alcohol use and binge drinking with peers
  • “It is possible that parental perception of peer substance use may result in parents believing that this is a normative behaviour for their child’s age group, and in turn that supply is also normative” i.e., all teens are going to drink alcohol at some stage and ‘everybody else’ gives their child a sip

When I read Sue’s email, my immediate thought was why had her husband made the decision to hand the beer over to his 11-year-old son? According to her, he didn’t even stop to think about it, he just handed it over, gave him a sip and then, after he had had a drink, simply asked “What do you think?” None of the reasons above appear to have come into play. It is important to remember that the study above only looked at early adolescence, Sue’s child was only 10, so could the reasons for her husband’s behaviour be different?

When I contacted Sue and we had a chat, it appeared that one of the major reasons she believed he made his decision was because of the context, i.e., he was with his brothers, they were having a beer at a family BBQ and his eldest son popped the question and he just responded in typical Aussie style. He didn’t think about it, it was a safe environment, it was ‘just a beer’ – what harm could it do? When I have spoken to parents about this issue in the past, this is almost always the scenario, so how did I respond to Sue’s request of advice? Here is an edited down version of the email I sent through to her:

There are no easy answers here, as with anything to do with parenting, there is no ‘one-size fits all’. Every family is different and no ‘expert’ can tell you what you should or shouldn’t be doing in this area. Based on what we do know, however, when it comes to providing sips of alcohol to a child or adolescent, particularly at a family gathering or the like, consider the following:

  • providing sips of alcohol to young people is not protective, i.e., it doesn’t reduce the risk of them drinking more when they’re with their friends
  • providing sips has been associated with increased risk of early adolescent drinking, particularly if given to them before the age of 10
  • family gatherings such as BBQs are unlikely to be the best place for young people to first try alcohol – although adults are around, quality monitoring and the conversation that’s needed to support their first drink are unlikely to occur

If you do believe that providing a sip of alcohol is appropriate for your child (e.g., your parent gave you a sip and it worked for you), based on the available evidence, it’s likely to be best to do so at a dinner at home. Firstly, you’re linking alcohol with food which is incredibly important and, secondly, it gives you the opportunity to take the time to discuss your attitudes and values around alcohol. What you and your partner say when your child tries that sip is incredibly important.

So whatever decision you make, I recommend the following:

  • it is vital that you and your partner have a ‘united front’ – try to come to an agreement on how you’re going to handle this. If you don’t feel comfortable with your husband providing sips of alcohol to your son, make sure he knows why you feel that way and try to come to a compromise around the handling of this issue in the future. It’s not going to be easy but try to work this out as soon as you can
  • access accurate and up-to-date information when you make your decision, examine your family situation (i.e., the role alcohol plays in your life), make a decision nice and early and stick to it
  • don’t be influenced by your best friend, your brother-in-law or your neighbour – ‘follow your heart’ – if it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it! 

Wadolowski, M., Hutchinson, D., Bruno, R., Aiken, A., Najman, J., Kypri, K., Slade, T., McBride, N., & Mattick, R. (2016). Parents who supply sips of alcohol in early adolescence: A prospective study of risk factors. Pediatrics 137(3), e20152611.

Published: November 2019

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