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 partying."
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 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."