It is every parent’s nightmare to have their children addicted to alcohol due to the detrimental effects they can have on the health as well as the socio-economic wellbeing of those affected.
Jane Mutheu, a single parent mother in Nairobi’s Kileleshwa estate has been struggling to address her 20 year old son’s alcoholism problem for two years.
“He’s gone for rehab and counselling but he keeps slipping back to the alcoholism problem every now and then. This has now become a constant struggle that I pray he overcomes someday.”
Even though Mutheu noticed the problem during his son’s first year at the university, she later came to learn that he had begun indulging in alcohol when he was still in high school.
Ms Mutheu’s concerns represent the fears and worries of most parents as there is always the possibility that children may end up drinking alcohol and probably becoming addicted to it irrespective of warnings they issue or examples parents set for them.
Instead of dealing with the uncertainty, some parents usually decide to introduce alcohol by themselves to their children at an early age (mostly during their high school years) so as to get an opportunity to offer them training on responsible drinking behaviours with the hope that this will curb abuse and other alcohol related risks that are common among young people. “I would rather buy them their first drink if they want and be in a position to monitor them and guide them instead of condoning drinking altogether,” said Christine Wanjiku, a mother of three teenage boys.
“If I say drinking is bad, they’ll still do it anyway if that is their desire. But then they will hide and I won’t be sure if the people they hang out with are advising my children accordingly.”
But taking such a hands-on approach could actually be detrimental to the child whilst promoting alcohol abuse.
A new study published in The Lancet Public Health journal shows that there are no benefits or protective effects associated with parents giving teenagers alcohol.
Compared to those not given alcohol at home, the six year study conducted in Australia among 12 to 18 year olds (between 2010 and 2016) found that parental provision of alcohol increased the likelihood of teenagers getting the drink through other sources. Findings showed that those who had received the substance from their parents for only a year, were twice as likely to access alcohol from other sources in the following year. The parental provision of alcohol did not also appear to help teenagers deal with alcohol responsibly.
The kids were more likely to engage in risky habits such as binge drinking (defined as drinking more than four drinks on a single occasion) and alcohol related self-harm. They also exhibited alcohol abuse symptoms that made them vulnerable to alcohol addiction in later life. “In many countries, parents are a key provider of alcohol to their children before they are of legal age to purchase alcohol. This practice by parents is intended to protect teenagers from the harms of heavy drinking by introducing them to alcohol carefully.
However, the evidence behind this has been limited,” said Prof Richard Mattick, lead author of the study from the University of New South Wales in Australia. “This research reinforces the fact that alcohol consumption leads to harm, no matter how it is supplied. We advise that parents should avoid supplying alcohol to their teenagers if they wish to reduce their risk of alcohol-related harms.”
He noted that when enacting programmes to prevent alcohol related harms among young people, governments should consider targeting parents — who often go largely unnoticed – with such findings so as to dissuade them from giving alcohol to their teenagers.
According to Susan Njoroge, Addictions and Family psychologist, parents should be the “last” people to introduce their children to underage drinking. “As a parent, you want to take care of your children and wish them the best in life. So why should you introduce them to something that can harm them so early in life?”
Research shows that drinking alcohol during the adolescent and teenage years can cause permanent brain damage which could be responsible for memory problems, learning challenges as well as verbal skills difficulties amongst affected kids.
Early initiation to it can also lead to alcohol dependence and depression, even as it affects teenagers’ social development growth. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has also linked alcohol intake to major non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like liver cancer, heart problems and hypertension. It also results in injuries arising from violence, road crashes and collisions.
Consequently, the WHO notes that alcohol consumption is a major cause of death and disability early in life. Its statistics show that approximately 25 percent of deaths in the 29 to 39 years age group are attributable to alcohol.
Due to low awareness on the effects of alcohol in children, Ms Njoroge notes that some parents have formed a dangerous habit of allowing their young kids to sip alcoholic drinks that adults may be consuming during family outings or gatherings.
“Alcohol abuse occurs in stages and this is how it starts. You introduce kids to the world of alcohol then they will start experimenting on their own. By the time they are adolescent or teenagers, you will be dealing with addicts.”
The Kenya Psychological Association (KPA) has been reaching out to pupils through forums such as the Rights of Passage Programme that prepares Standard Eight pupils for life in high school and beyond.
“We talk to them about the dangers of alcohol abuse and how they should avoid falling into the alcoholism trap. And we have seen that this is helping them so much.”
As per government recommendations, more schools have also began having in-house psychologists that help children deal with life stresses and peer pressure that are the major contributors for alcohol consumption among teenagers.