Children and teenagers in Kenya have been on the longest holiday of two full months since the onset of Covid-19 in 2020 that has seen compressed academic calendars since January 2021. The hallmark of the holiday couldn’t be better than the much loved and anticipated global season of Christmas and merry making. It goes by no doubt that alcohol is in the center of the celebrations. Liquor outlets are recording increased sales as more joints continue to record high numbers of revelers.  Every single day more and more selling points continue to sprout in the residential areas of towns bringing alcohol closer to young people. The most unsettling bit is the increase of liquor bottles making their way into households with young people. The 2023 NACADA report on the status of drugs shows that 13% of the population aged 15 – 24 years reported lifetime use of alcohol while the prevalence of lifetime use of alcohol for the population aged 25 – 35 years was 22 percent with the minimum age for initiation to alcohol stands at 7 years. While the law is clear on the age of access to bars and pubs, in focus group discussions with   children and youth report that it is “very easy” to get alcohol from family celebration including birthdays, traditional functions, from parents cabinets and from older siblings or visiting relatives from across other towns who carry liquor home. Instances where parents leave children unchaperoned as they travel upcountry or across towns for work or work extreme dawn to late night hours  are  also risk factor as they children are more likely to gather and indulge in such environments unlike households with close adults supervision.  A majority of young people who have tasted alcohol disclose that they did not have pay for the alcohol as they were in a position where the alcohol was offered without any limitation. Parties that confirm availability of liquor are considered more fun as compared to those that do not condone alcohol consumption. The youth also confess to being attracted to visual alcohol adverts that include celebrities they look like sports, movie and music starts. While policies regulate television adverts for certain times the presence of alcohol in movies and the mention of alcohol in music is constant advertisement. A random group of young people can comfortably mention and sing out at least 5 local songs that promote alcohol consumption. While the parents are clearly worried about the increase of underage drinking, most parents underestimate its prevalence and fail to recognize the full range of negative consequences that can result and assume that drinking is something that other children, “not theirs” do.

The survey conducted by NACADA 2023 established that alcohol continues to be the most widely used substance of abuse in Kenya with findings pointing towards increasing demand for cheaper and readily available alcoholic products especially traditional brews and potable spirits which are also popular with underage drinkers who also tend to drink a lot and take risk by pushing their limits. Childhood and teenage alcohol consumption injures the developing brains and interferes with important developmental milestones. Studies have proven that brains continue to develop into adulthood around 21 years of age thereby underage drinking compromises these important function, underage drinker’s record problems with memory retention and lack of goal setting. This translates to In addition children and teenagers who begin drinking alcohol early in life are more likely to wind up with lifetime alcohol problems throughout their adult lives. The consequences of underage alcohol use can be acute and immediate outcomes of single episode of alcohol-impaired functioning such as injury or they can be accumulated diverse effects of chronic patterns of drinking such as dropped school performances, truancy, disciplinary cases and disintegration of relations with peers and adults including teachers and caregivers. Impaired decision making in underage age drinkers increases the risks of being exposed to sexual exploitation, unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted illnesses, involvement in physical fights and at extreme ends with continued usage comes the feelings of hopelessness and suicide attempts. Although underage drinkers may not be heavy drinkers the risks they are exposed are very higher and it goes higher as the age of drinking age lowers. College students and those who had just completed secondary education shared that they are more likely to engage in consensual sex while intoxicated, boys hold the notion that it makes them more masculine to be seen consuming alcohol to avoid passing as “soft” to the opposite gender while girls thought that consumption of alcohol makes them look more exposed and cool. In other words young people who may have the knowledge of effects of alcohol may use it as a prop to their sexuality as they may feel shy or to mask the guilt of early sexual activities which increases their risk of addiction alongside the effects of early sexual encounters.

Most of the messages portray teenage and young adults drinking as normal and fun and these may drown the warnings and teachings of adults. It is still very important for parents to engage in meaningful conversation about alcohol and drugs and its effects in their present and past life. According to the NACADA 2023 report, analysis by lifetime abstainers of drugs and substance use shows that awareness of the health effects of drugs and substances of abuse was the main reason for abstaining (47.0%) followed a personal decision to lead a drug-free life and religious teachings. Leading by example is also recommended, a young person who is being raised in alcohol free household is likely to conform to that lifestyle as compared to those in households that are experience by drinking at home. Children tend to uphold the standards set by their parents and this when supported by teachings and values hold impact on their life decisions. Sometimes parents completely ignore this topics and assume such topics even when the children are exposed in schools and communities. In case a parent is already struggling with past on current use it is good for them to hold the discussion and admit their own struggles and also seek support of their whole family to help them overcome. Maintaining a functional and peaceful home environment is also a significant factor, one young person shared that conflicts at home sometimes push young people to sue alcohol in order to mask the pain caused by the verbal and physical violence. Another young person also cited that in cases where a child is already into alcohol or drugs the parents tend to go through periods of blaming one another often times the fathers blame the mothers for failure in upbringing resulting in violence at home and this may just make the child sink even deeper into alcohol use.

This festive season we all have a responsibility to ensure that the young people are safeguarded and provided with safety nets to ensure they have a fun filled Christmas full of memories and free from harm. Constantly be on the lookout for early warning signs as young drinkers may experience behavioral changes like dropping old friends for new ones, are easily irritable and aggressive, shy, avoid constant glare, are sometimes paranoid, suffer a never-ending running nose and find it hard to stay focused on a task. Besides they may have cold, sweaty palms, suffer mouth sores, frequent headaches nose bleedings, paranoia and either sleep too much or too little. Parents should also become concerned if they notice their child lose weight suddenly, is hyperactive and over imaginative, Also check in with the friends of children and teenagers and if possible familiarize with their parents as well to widen the community focus.  This coming together provides enough time for families to sit down and talk about important issues that affect their children, this child-led discussions should be accompanied by neutrality and confidentiality with assurance that their concerns are valid and ensure that the parents are engaging on what matters to the children and not forcing down instructions and their own experiences that may have been passed with time. Family and group goal setting is also a good idea through putting up a family vision board with each and everyone’s dreams, this way each person is more inclined to hold their role to its success, for example when children may feel more motivated to horn their talents/skills or better their grades and generally reinforce their personal goals. Religious and faith based settings continue to harness and adapt their services to young people as per the trends, through youth pastors, youth services and youth worship groups provide grounds for meaningful engagement. Most churches have held their youth classes, residential and day youth camps, baptisms, confirmations among other celebrations meant to embed youth participation. In the instance that a young person is struggling with alcohol abuse parents and other caregivers should provide emotional and material support to them during their recovery process being careful not to criticize or accuse them. It helps desist from comparing them with their peers and siblings and instead show them love and affection.

However you chose to celebrate this Christmas remember that the most fun is experienced when everyone is sober. Merry Christmas!!

By; Perpetua Ayanga

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