If there’s a common thread among the people we treat for addiction, it’s this — many started young. Multiple studies confirm it: The sooner a person experiments with drugs or alcohol, the more likely it is to become a problem for them.
For example, researchers have found that about 40% of those who started drinking at age 14 or younger develop later alcohol dependence, compared to 10% of those who waited until they were 21 or older to have their first drink. Each year’s delay in onset of drinking corresponded to a 14% decrease in the odds of becoming dependent. The pattern is also seen with drugs: Each year of delay translated to a 5% decrease in risk.
Why that is so isn’t perfectly understood, and a direct cause-and-effect can’t always be proven. But researchers do know that the brain is still developing until about a person’s mid-20s, and those changes in structure and function appear to make the young more vulnerable to problems with drugs and alcohol. The adolescent brain finds substances more rewarding, for example, which may spark increased use. The youthful brain also has less ability to learn from adverse experiences. It may also be more liable to cognitive damage from substances, making later recovery tougher.
The age at which a person starts using drugs or alcohol isn’t the only risk factor in addiction, of course. Genetics, environment, lifestyle and mental health issues are also believed to play a part. But the vulnerability of the adolescent is real, meaning early use shouldn’t be written off as inevitable youthful experimentation. The message is clear: Anything you can do to discourage your child from that first use of alcohol or other drugs is worth the effort.
- Teaching social drinking can backfire.
Some parents adhere to what is called the “European Model” of drinking, in which children are allowed occasional sips of alcohol at family events. Not only does this teach moderation, they reason, it demystifies alcohol and limits its appeal, making their child less likely to go wild later. This mindset ignores some truths, however.
- The European Model is more a memory of a world that was, not today’s reality. Binge drinking is now global. In fact, a survey released in 2011 found that a majority of European countries have higher intoxication rates among the young than the U.S. does, and more of the European youth report getting drunk before they turned 13. “There is no evidence that the more liberal policies and drinking socialization practices in Europe are associated with lower levels of intoxication,” the researchers concluded.
- Those early sips can have the opposite effect from that intended. A long-term study of 561 middle school students found that those allowed a sip of their parent’s beer or wine on occasion were four times more likely to binge drink when they reached high school, and that’s even when accounting for a variety of factors, including a family history of addiction. Allowing drinking before it is legal sends a mixed message, the study concluded. You may think you’re saying “these are the joys of moderation,” but what your kids are likely hearing is “my parents are OK with me drinking.”
Today, youth are bombarded with music, media and marketing that celebrate extreme alcohol consumption. Parents need to be a counterweight to that messaging, teaching safe drinking not with the glass but by modeling your own responsible drinking and making clear your family’s expectations surrounding alcohol use.
- Deeper issues often lurk behind substance use.
There are a whole host of reasons kids try drugs and alcohol. They’re curious, their friends are doing it, they’re bored. It’s tempting to assume one of these is the explanation when you discover your child sneaking a drink from the liquor cabinet or hiding a joint in their room. After all, most parents have their own stories of youthful alcohol or drug use, and they survived.
It’s important to remember, however, that substance use is often an attempt at self-medication, motivated by a desire to escape negative feelings rather than to seek pleasure. It’s why you so often hear problem users talk about drugs or alcohol making them feel “normal” for the first time.
Adolescence is a time when mental health issues most commonly present themselves, so take the time to question your child about the motivation behind their substance use. Children can be depressed without realizing it, or dealing with anxiety, attention deficit issues or emotional trauma. About a third of adolescents show symptoms of depression, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and one in five has a diagnosable mental health condition. When substance use and mental illness co-occur, it’s not always clear which came first. What is certain is that each only makes the other worse.
Effective treatment for those who are struggling is available, so the discovery of substance use is a good time to take your child for a checkup with their physician. It can be a nonthreatening way to help determine if a follow-up with a mental health professional is appropriate. You may discover your child’s alcohol or drug use is less a sign of rebellion than a cry for help.