Risk Factors for Alcohol Abuse in Children

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Although the legal drinking age in the United States is 21, it's important to be aware of risk factors for alcohol abuse in children.

Prevalence of Youth Drinking Alcohol

Here are some statistics on underage drinking, according to The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA):

  • Teens ages 13 to 15 comprise the largest youth age group for being at risk to start drinking.
  • A recent survey found that 26 percent of 8th graders, 40 percent of 10th graders, and 51 percent of 12th graders said that they had consumed alcohol within the previous month.
  • The same survey found that binge drinking also occurred at high rates among all the age groups.
  • Young males report more drinking than do young females.
  • White students reported the most alcohol consumption, while African Americans reported the lowest. Hispanic youth reported an alcohol consumption level that fell between the other two.
  • The survey spoke with high school seniors and a full 80 percent reported binge teen drinking, drinking and driving, or getting "very drunk" during the precious year.
  • More than one half of the above seniors reported that alcohol caused them to miss school, feel sick, get arrested, or crash a vehicle.

A recent survey regarding drinking among high school seniors and dropouts found that within the past year, about 80 percent reported getting drunk, binge drinking, or drinking and driving. Of the respondents who admitted to excessive drinking, over half said that drinking had caused them to feel sick enough to miss school or work, get arrested, or cause an auto accident.

Youth Who Drink Alcohol

A small minority of youth may be at risk for true alcohol dependency according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV) criteria for alcohol dependence. Youth who fit in this category are rare, however. Current researchers who study youth and alcohol abuse suggest that a completely separate diagnostic criteria is necessary for children who drink verses adults that drink.

Largely, risk factors for alcohol abuse in children include biological and psychosocial risk factors.

Biological Risk Factors for Alcohol Abuse in Children

Biological risks factors for alcohol abuse among youth vary greatly and show that there is much need for continued research into this important topic. NIAAA identifies the following biological markers that may contribute to youth drinking.

Genetics: Genetics can play a role in anyone's alcohol abuse issues, but the entire realm of environment verses genetics is not well understood and requires further research. Still, studies report that children of alcoholics are significantly more likely to drink and to themselves eventually become alcoholics than children who have non-drinking parents.

Behaviors: Children who at three years of age were classified as unruly, trouble makers, restless, impulsive, and, or easily distracted show later rates of being twice as likely to drink as kids noted as easy going, well-adjusted, or inhibited. This marker is odd though in that one wonders are children who are classified as "bad" really acting out because they are truly impulsive? Or do kids classified as "bad" merely have parents who drink and or who don't parent well?

Actual disorders: Real psychiatric disorders can be true markers for risk factors for alcohol abuse in children. Youth officially diagnosed, by a doctor, for conduct disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder AND who tend to form weak social relationships are at risk for problem drinking.

Brain activity: Brain activity doesn't put youth at risk for drinking, but some doctors have been able to use brain waves to make predictions about which youth may end up with a drinking problem.

Social Risk Factors of Children Who Drink

Social risk factors are far less surprising than biological markers for youth and alcohol abuse but very prevalent and a huge problem.

Peers and family environment: No surprise here. What is a surprise is that research has been able to pinpoint exactly why peers and family play such vital roles in youth alcohol abuse. A few things that NIAAA says that scientists do know include:

  • Children who have been told not to drink by parents actually do listen and are far less likely than kids whose parents say nothing about the topic.
  • Children who have parents with friendly attitudes towards drinking tend to drink.
  • A lack of hands-on parent support, encouragement, monitoring, and communication contributes to a child's decision to drink.
  • Harsh judging, put-downs, and rejection by parents all contribute to a child's decision to drink alcohol.

Abuse and trauma: Child abuse or childhood traumas are suggested reasons given for youth who drink alcohol. Teens in alcohol treatment report higher rates of sexual abuse, physical and verbal abuse, or repeated witnessing of violence than their peers who don't drink.

Alcohol advertising: This has not been fully studied as of yet. Science can't say if issues such as parents saying, "don't drink" cancel out alcohol advertisements, but some studies do slightly suggest that advertising can play a role in whether a child drinks or not.

The consequences of youth drinking can result in numerous negative circumstances and situations such as: drinking and driving, too-early sexual behavior, delayed puberty and bone growth, risk taking behaviors, and even brain damage. It's important to talk with kids at an early and on-going age and to know the risk factors and effects of alcohol associated with youth drinking.

For more information visit: Stop Underage Drinking

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Risk Factors for Alcohol Abuse in Children