The Hidden Epidemic of Very Young Alcoholics
How Kids Get Started continued...
At 15, Brooke veered out of control. A straight-A student until then, she
began failing in school and disappearing from her mother's house for days at a
time, staying with her 19-year-old boyfriend. "My mother would call the
cops to bring me back home," Brooke says. As a high school senior, she
started using pot, cocaine, and ecstasy. Her mother tried to deal with the
problem by grounding Brooke. "She'd take away my car. And one time she took
off the door to my room, so she could see what was going on or if I was
sneaking out." Brooke graduated from high school, turned 17 a week later,
and moved out. "My mother and I had both had enough," Brooke says.
"I just wanted to be on my own. She was getting in the way of my
Brooke lived with her boyfriend for a while, then tried junior college, but
her addiction kept her from moving forward. Four years after high school, just
before she entered treatment at the Betty Ford Center, Brooke was virtually
homeless, crashing for a night or two with friends, then wandering the streets
of San Diego, committing petty crimes to pay for drugs and alcohol.
Risk Factors to Watch For
"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
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
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."