New campaign warns parents of dangers of introducing children to drink

Joanne Good with a photo of her daughter Megan.
Joanne Good with a photo of her daughter Megan.

A mum whose teenage daughter died after drinking alcohol at a party is sharing her story in a bid to make other parents aware of the risks.

Joanne Good’s 16-year-old daughter Megan Craig-Wilkinson died in her sleep on January 1, 2014, after drinking alcohol at a friend’s New Year’s Eve party.

Now she is sharing her story as part of the What’s the Harm campaign, launched by Balance, the North East alcohol office, after figures suggest parenting tactics aimed at creating a safer relationship with alcohol and introducing drinking at a younger age could actually be giving children a taste for booze.

Joanne said: “As a parent, it’s so hard to know what the right thing to do is when it comes to alcohol and your children.

"Before what happened to Megan, as a parent myself, you’re guided by what you did when you were young and what your family did with you. A lot of parents think if you provide them with a little bit of alcohol in a controlled environment it’s safer, and that’s what I did.

"But going through what I’ve been through, my perception of alcohol has completely changed and my advice to other parents would be to delay introducing alcohol for as long as possible.

“I know how difficult it is as a parent – your children go out, there’s peer pressure and you can’t control what they drink. But I think it’s important for them to know that alcohol is a poison and it’s something that you can become addicted to. We all want the best for our children and the younger they start drinking, the longer they have to become heavier drinkers.

“Be open and honest with your children, tell them about your experiences. I think children see alcohol and think it’s fine, because it’s legal and often presented as a good thing – but it’s not, it’s dangerous and our children are more vulnerable to its effects. Take some time to research the guidelines and talk to your children, as house parties are starting early these days.

“Megan is always in my heart, she was here, real and a part of me. Megan wasn’t intoxicated or a heavy drinker, but I think sharing her story and the dangers of what can happen from drinking and being sick, might have more of an effect, rather than just telling your children not to do things.

"Hopefully when they go to a party, they’ll think of her and maybe they’ll have a non-alcoholic drink instead.”

Balance wants to raise awareness of guidance that an alcohol-free childhood up to 18 is the healthiest and best option, and that if children do drink this should not be before the age of 15.

It says many parents know drinking increases the risks of accidents, injuries, smoking and drug taking. But many are less aware of the damage alcohol can do to children’s developing brains, liver, bones and hormones, affecting their mood, their mental health and risking them falling behind at school.

A new survey of North East parents shows nearly eight out of 10 (78 per cent) would first talk to their children about alcohol before the age of 15, but almost half (43 per cent) think children should have their first taste of alcohol before 15 – despite evidence showing children who start drinking at an early age are more likely to become heavy drinkers when they’re older.

Parents are encouraged to visit www.whatstheharm.co.uk to find out about the facts and the myths about children and alcohol, and how best to have a conversation about alcohol with their child.

Colin Shevills, director of Balance, said: “Parents have a right to know about all of the alcohol harms which children face if they drink. Every parent wants the best for their child and we know it can be hard knowing what is the right thing to do around alcohol.

“However, we know from speaking to North East parents there’s a myth that providing alcohol at a young age makes children less curious, when in fact it can be a trigger for drinking. People mention the French way of giving children alcohol - but France actually has twice the rate of alcohol dependence than the UK.

“We found that a lot of parents were not aware of official guidance around children, and were more likely to call on their own experiences growing up when making decisions about alcohol.

“It is also interesting that fewer children are drinking regularly than they did 15 years ago, which we hope will empower more parents not to provide it if they are pressured to. But it is very worrying that those children who do drink regularly are drinking the equivalent of 9 shots of vodka a week – too many children are on the path to becoming dependent drinkers.”

GP partner Dr John Green, of Prudhoe Medical Group, said: “While some children may look taller and older than some of their peers, their brains and bodies are still growing and developing and alcohol affects them quicker.

“Medical evidence is clear that drinking can also affect the normal development of children’s vital organs and functions, including the brain, liver, bones and hormones. It is also linked to their mental health, can lead to feelings of depression among children and it can also affect their performance at school.

“The best advice is to talk to your children about alcohol before secondary school, don’t consider letting them drink before 15 and if you can, delay it until they’re 18 as that is definitely the best start in life.”

The National Drinking, Smoking and Drug Use Survey is an annual survey of secondary school pupils in England in Years 7 to 11 (mostly aged 11 to 15) of 12,051 pupils in 177 schools. In 2016 it found:

44 per cent of pupils had ever drunk alcohol.

Pupils who drank alcohol in the last week consumed an average (mean) of 9.6 units that week.

Pupils who drank in the last week were most likely to have drunk beer, lager or cider, with boys more likely than girls (87 per cent of boys, 70 per cent of girls).

Girls were more likely than boys to have drunk spirits (65 per cent of girls, 53 per cent of boys), alcopops (40 per cent and 31 per cent) or wine, martini or sherry (49 per cent and 25 per cent).