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The Hidden Epidemic of Very Young Alcoholics

Risk Factors to Watch For

Good Housekeeping Lunch With Beer

"The traditional thinking is that risk factors for alcohol abuse show up in adolescence," says Robert A. Zucker, Ph.D., director of the Addiction Research Center at the University of Michigan, who has led studies designed to identify kids at risk for alcohol and other substance abuse. "But, actually, they can show up earlier — in children 9 or younger, even in preschoolers."

Chad Dignan of Eden Prairie, MN, got drunk for the first time when he was 9, at a party thrown by one of his older sisters while their parents were away. A thin boy with sandy hair, Chad wandered into the living room and started drinking beer. He also tried his first cigarette and puffed some marijuana. Soon after, he began nipping the leftovers from his father's martinis, then stealing from vodka bottles that his father stored in the garage. His parents' marriage was troubled, and his dad was a problem drinker, sometimes verbally abusive when he was under the influence. "Drinking was an escape from all my problems," explains Chad, now 19 and clean for more than three years.

Kids at risk for early drinking may have a parent who is an alcoholic or a problem drinker. That was the case with Chad and Brooke, whose fathers drank heavily, and with Mary, whose mother is an alcoholic in recovery. But having an alcoholic parent doesn't guarantee that a kid will drink — and not having an alcoholic parent doesn't guarantee that a kid won't. "Yes, we see problems in kids who are children of alcoholics," says Vivian B. Faden, Ph.D., deputy director of the Division of Epidemiology and Prevention Research at the NIAAA."But we have a huge problem going on with lots of other kids too. Some who fall off the cliff are kids you never would have expected, kids who always followed the rules and have had minimal previous involvement with drinking. They can end up making poor decisions."

Other Risk Factors

Children at risk for early drinking may also:

  • Have a close friend or sibling who uses alcohol and/or other drugs
  • Tend to hold in anger or negative feelings instead of expressing themselves — or, at the other extreme, fly off the handle too easily
  • Be socially awkward
  • Have poor impulse control
  • Engage in risk-taking behavior
  • Have parents who don't keep track of their whereabouts or behavior
  • Have experienced trauma, such as a parental divorce
  • Receive harsh or inconsistent discipline from parents
  • Have experienced childhood abuse
  • Be aggressive or hard to control
  • Do poorly in school

Zucker points out that not every child with these traits and behaviors will become a drinker, nor will every young drinker exhibit them. But knowing about risk factors can help alert parents, teachers, and counselors to potential problems so they can be prevented by timely intervention.

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