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Can Child’s Temperament Predict Teen Drinking?

A significant number of American teenagers drink alcohol either occasionally or on a regular basis. Even more than adults, these teens expose themselves to a range of potentially severe alcohol-related health risks. In a study published in December 2013 in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, a team of British and American researchers sought to determine if children’s temperament (characteristic personality) early in life helps predict the chances of developing problems with drinking in adolescence.

Teen Drinking Background

According to figures compiled by the University of Michigan and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, alcohol consumption has been dropping in popularity among American teenagers fairly consistently since the mid-1990s. Still, in 2012, roughly 41 percent of U.S. 12th graders drank at least some alcohol in the average month. The average monthly rate of consumption among 10th graders was approximately 27 percent, while about 12 percent of all eighth-graders drank at least once a month. Unfortunately, adolescents who drink have a strong tendency to participate in binge drinking, a destructive pattern of intake known for its production of rapid drunkenness. Among both binge-drinking and non-binge-drinking teens, known risks associated with alcohol consumption include increased exposure to accidental injury, increased exposure to intentional injury, non-fatal or fatal alcohol poisoning, a higher likelihood of attempting suicide, problems with short- and long-term brain function, diminished academic performance and poor classroom conduct.

Childhood Temperament Basics

Childhood temperament is the term used to describe the personality traits that emerge in any given child as he or she grows older. While environmental influences play an important role in determining how a child behaves, temperament is typically viewed as an inborn characteristic that stays more or less intact throughout the transition from childhood to adulthood. Most children fit into one of three basic temperament categories, known as easy, difficult and cautious. “Easy” children have a generally happy or positive demeanor, adapt well to alterations in their surroundings and eat and sleep in regular patterns. “Difficult” children have a much greater tendency toward moodiness and negativity; they also adapt to change rather poorly and have problems establishing regular eating and sleeping routines. “Cautious” children also experience some problems when adapting to new circumstances. However, compared to “difficult” children, their reactions to things they don’t like are substantially less extreme. In addition, once they adapt to their surroundings, they behave largely like “easy” children.

Predicting Teen Drinking

In the study published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, researchers from two British universities and one American university used data from a long-term project called the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children to examine the potential connection between early childhood temperament and problematic teen drinking behaviors. All told, the researchers analyzed information gathered from 12,647 boys and girls split roughly equally along gender lines. The mothers of all of these boys and girls submitted information on their children’s developing temperaments between the ages of 6 months and 5 years. The researchers cross-referenced this information with the presence of alcohol-related problems a decade later when the children reached age 15.

After reviewing their findings, the researchers concluded that both children with a “difficult” early temperament and children with an “easy” early temperament have increased chances of developing problems with alcohol consumption during adolescence. This conclusion held true even after other factors that can increase the risks for problematic teen drinking—including socioeconomic background and having parents affected by alcohol-related issues—were taken into account. In teenagers with a “difficult” early childhood temperament, the increased risk apparently stems primarily from mood instability and a relatively low level of diligence and regard for others. In teens with an “easy” early childhood temperament, the risk apparently stems primarily from having an outgoing nature and having an increased likelihood of seeking out highly stimulating experiences.

Significance and Considerations

The authors of the study published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research note that some of the temperament-related risks for adolescent alcohol problems apply equally to boys and girls, while others tend to appear more often in one gender or the other. Overall, they feel that their work clearly demonstrates that, when it comes to the risks for problematic drinking, teens with widely varying personality traits have much more in common than a casual glance would reveal.

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