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How We Can Predict Which Kids Could Have Drinking Problems

Biological, personality, and behavioral factors predict high school drinking.

Teenage/underage drinking can have serious consequences. It's associated with increased risk for academic difficulties, drug and tobacco use, assault—even injury and death. It would be helpful if we could predict who is most likely to develop drinking problems in high school.

According to a recent study, published in the journal Addictive Behaviors, we may be able to: Results showed that certain biological, behavioral, and personality factors in childhood appeared to predict alcohol drinking problems and other maladaptive behaviors five years later—when students were in high school.1

These factors included 5th-grade drinking behaviors, early onset of puberty (i.e. before 75 percent of one’s peers), negative affect (regular experience of negative emotional states), urgency (tendency to experience strong impulses and act rashly when distressed), and low conscientiousness.

Dmytro Surkov/Shutterstock
Source: Dmytro Surkov/Shutterstock

Factors Associated with Drinking Alcohol in Teen Years

Previous research has shown that a child’s personality traits, behaviors, and developmental patterns may influence drinking behaviors years later when the individual is in high school. Perhaps the most obvious predictor is current alcohol drinking habits: Students who already drink alcohol in elementary or middle school are more likely to drink alcohol in high school.

Another variable is pubertal onset. Puberty is generally linked with risk-taking; thus, the earlier a student reaches puberty, the earlier she may engage in risky behaviors such as drinking alcohol.

Also influential is a personality trait known as urgency, which is associated with experiences of powerful impulses and disposition toward rash actions in response to distress.

Urgency is one of four factors underlying impulsivity; the others are lack of planning (acting without forethought); lack of perseverance (having difficulty staying focused on task); and sensation seeking (pursuing novel/exciting experiences).2 What is the reason for acting rashly? Perhaps to increase positive mood or distract from negative emotions. But while acting rashly sometimes eases distress, it often results in long-term harm. Urgency has been linked to unsafe sexual practices, early drug abuse, and self-injury.1

Predicting Underage Alcohol Drinking Problems Five Years Later

In the recent study, Cole and colleagues tried to predict which children would develop alcohol drinking problems and other maladaptive behaviors five years later. The sample originally consisted of 1,889 students (from 23 schools). These students were assessed three times—when they were in 5th, 6th, and 10th grade. Both genders were equally represented in the sample. Most students were of European American ethnicity (61 percent)—other major ethnicities included African American (19 percent), Hispanic (eight percent), and Asian American (three percent).

Of the original sample, 1,826 students participated in the first wave of assessments. The other 63 students joined a year later (for the second wave of assessments). Four years later, about 75 percent of the original sample (1,417) took part in the last wave. No study-relevant systematic differences were found between those who participated in all waves and those who took part in only one or two.

Researchers assessed numerous factors as potential predictors of drinking problems. These factors included pubertal development, drinking habits, emotions, impulsivity, and coping style. Two coping styles were examined: The strategy of emotion-oriented coping refers to a passive and emotional approach (e.g., rumination, fantasizing) to managing distress, while task-oriented coping refers to active attempts at problem-solving (e.g., asking for help).

Results showed that 10th-grade alcohol drinking problems were predicted by 5th-grade drinking behavior, urgency, early puberty, and low conscientiousness.

Emotion-oriented coping was predicted by puberty, drinking behavior, negative emotions, and urgency. Lower task-oriented coping was predicted by alcohol drinking behavior, low conscientiousness, and urgency.

How to Better Prevent Unsafe Drinking

Alcohol drinking problems, along with dysfunctional coping strategies, have been linked to negative outcomes including social dysfunction, delinquency, and “increased current and future risk for physical harm, sexual assault, and death.”1

Because of serious consequences associated with problem drinking in the teenage years, it is crucial to develop a better appreciation of how drinking habits at a younger age develop and change as children enter their teens. Based on the current research and previous findings, the development of drinking problems appears to involve a complex interaction between behavior and personality development.

While it is practically impossible to change certain factors (e.g., puberty onset), other factors may be more amenable to change. For example, one solution to preventing drinking problems is to delay drinking onset. How? By teaching young people more effective coping skills.

Whatever the source of emotionality (e.g., early puberty, personality traits), teaching young people effective coping behaviors and planning skills can help them better manage their feelings of distress. In response to feelings of distress, instead of rash actions (including self-harm, drinking alcohol, and doing drugs), they can use more effective ways of coping.

Some examples of effective coping strategies are:

  • Seeking information to identify the problem and potential solutions.
  • Evaluating alternatives and their consequences, then taking action.
  • Planning and time management.
  • Cognitive reframing (e.g., reconsidering a difficulty as a chance to learn something new).
  • Learning a skill relevant to solving the problem.
  • Asking for help and support.

Adults are expected to have self-control and choose to consume or not consume alcohol based on knowledge regarding both the risks and health benefits—to drink responsibly. This is not true of children. As holidays approach, and alcohol appears everywhere—both at family gatherings and at teenage parties—be mindful of young adults struggling with emotional problems. Teach them better coping skills, so they are not drawn to drinking or other maladaptive behaviors. Help them choose more effective solutions.

LinkedIn image: Darren Baker/Shutterstock


1. Cole, H. A., Peterson, S. J., & Smith, G. T. (2018). Elementary and middle school predictors of high school drinking problems and maladaptive coping. Addictive Behaviors, 87, 177-182.

2. Cyders, M. A., & Smith, G. T. (2008). Emotion-based dispositions to rash action: Positive and negative urgency. Psychological Bulletin, 134, 807–828.

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