Teenage drinking is a dangerous phenomenon. About 5,000 people under age 21 die each year due to alcohol-related events, and according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, teens who begin drinking before they are 15 are about four times as likely to develop alcoholism as compared to those who didn’t begin drinking before the age of 21. There are several factors that play into the possibility of alcoholism, such as genetics and parent behavior, but it turns out that an individual’s personality in early childhood can be an indicator of future alcohol abuse.
Researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University used data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) to examine what personality traits may be related to underage drinking. They followed 12,647 children – roughly equal amounts boys and girls – born between April 1991 and December 1992 and did periodic assessments of their personalities between the ages of six months old to almost six years old. It is in these early years that children begin to develop behaviors and ways of dealing with their emotions, conscientiousness and agreeableness, as well as learning how to interact with others. Temperament plays a role in drinking for everyone – people drink to deal with anxiety, depression, loneliness, anger, and a multitude of other emotions. An inability to properly deal with these emotions as a child can be an indication of future alcoholism. These children were also more likely to skip school, get in trouble with teachers, destroy something for fun, set fire to something, steal something, get into fights, be cruel to animals, get into trouble with the police, smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol without parental permission, have been offered illegal drugs, and smoke cannabis.
Later, when the children were 15 ½ years old, the researchers asked them about their alcohol consumption. They found that children with emotional instability, low sociability, and who showed a high degree of extroversion were more likely to become drinkers. The study was controlled for other factors such as demographics and parental alcohol use. To the degree that a teen’s social group does play a role in their drinking, it could be that having these traits makes them more likely to associate with other people who are inclined to alcohol abuse. For example, people with poor social skills and behavioral problems might seek one another out because of an inability to fit in elsewhere.
This might be evidence that teenage drinking doesn’t have as much to do with peer pressure or social influence as we thought. Understanding that these personality traits play a role can help parents develop strategies for at-risk children. They may need to work with doctors or therapists to develop a program for prevention, and it will be necessary to take special care in educating these children about the dangers of alcohol.
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