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Health & Parenting

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The Hidden Epidemic of Very Young Alcoholics

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.

Chad was 11 when his parents announced they were divorcing. After that, he says, his drinking and drug use accelerated. "I tried it all: crystal meth, LSD, cocaine, ecstasy. And I never stopped drinking." In fact, he graduated to binge drinking — consuming more than five drinks in a sitting. According to a 2005 national survey at the University of Michigan, 10.5 percent of all eighth-graders and 28 percent of high school seniors had engaged in binge-drinking in the previous two-week period. "When I was bingeing, I felt cool and popular," Chad says.

When he was 14, Chad discovered hotel parties: An older kid, at least 18, would rent a room. "We'd all show up, get high, and drink a lot," says Chad. "No parents were there, so we could trash the hotel room. I would always tell my parents I was going to some smart kid's house, a kid who was doing well in school." Chad's parents didn't ask many questions, something his mother, Reneé Dignan, now admits was a big mistake. "I didn't want to believe there was a problem," she says.

Things got worse. Always an athlete, Chad began to get high on cocaine, pot, and alcohol before football and ice hockey games. He played football drunk, hurt his knee, and required surgery. While on acid, he set fire to his school. For many kids, as with Chad, early drinking leads to early abuse of other drugs. More than 66 percent of kids who are heavy drinkers also use illicit drugs, compared with 5.5 percent of nondrinkers, according to a CASA report.

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