January 7, 2013
The answers to a few questions can help doctors figure out which teens are most likely to drink alcohol at an early age, a study suggests. The study included 820 teens, ages 14 through 17. All were part of a larger study of alcoholism risk in families. They were interviewed using a standard format related to alcoholism risk. They also completed a questionnaire related to behavior. The teens were asked at what age they had their first whole drink of alcohol (such as a full can of beer). Those who said they already had a complete drink of alcohol were more likely to say their best friends drank. They were also more likely to have family members with alcohol problems. And they were more likely to have social, conduct and school problems. The journal Pediatrics published the study January 7.
By Claire McCarthy, M.D.
Harvard Medical School
What Is the Doctor's Reaction?
Important fact: Kids who take a full drink of alcohol before the age of 15 are 4 times as likely to develop alcoholism as those who don't.
That's why it would be great to figure out which kids were most likely to take that first drink -- and get them the help they need. And that's exactly what researchers from the University of Iowa Carver School of Medicine set out to do. Their research results were released today in the journal Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Doctors use several screening tools (generally questionnaires) to see if kids might be at risk of behavioral or other problems. The researchers wanted to know which tools were most effective. They also wanted to know which questions were most important to ask if we want to help kids stay out of trouble.
The biggest factor that increased the risk of having that drink early was having a best friend who drinks. Far and away, this put kids at highest risk. This makes sense. Peer pressure would come into play, and if your friend drinks, it's also more likely that you will be able to get alcohol.
Other big risk factors were:
Questionnaires that looked at these particular risk factors were most likely to pick out the kids who needed help.
What Changes Can I Make Now?
Pediatricians who read this study will need to look at the screening tools they are using more carefully. They may want to choose different ones -- or just pay more careful attention to some questions and answers.
Parents, and people who work with youth, can use the results of this study too. Most of all, this study tells us that parents need to know who their children's friends are -- and know what they are up to.
Parents also need to take it very seriously if their child has behavioral problems, gets into trouble or has problems making friends. It's not a good idea to think of things as "a phase" and assume that once kids "grow up a little" everything will be okay. Decisions and habits made in youth can haunt you. They can change a life forever.
It's especially important for parents to be willing to look long and hard at their own drinking habits, and the habits of others in the family. Not only do genes affect the risk of alcoholism, but kids always pay more attention to what we do than to what we say.
Doing well in school, and being involved in school and other activities, also seems to help protect kids. So it's important to be aware of grades -- and get kids help (such as tutoring) if grades start to slip. Encourage your kids to be involved in sports and clubs at school, too. It can make all the difference.
What Can I Expect Looking to the Future?
Hopefully, this study will lead to better ways to identify high-risk teens. Then doctors and parents will be able to get treatment for them and take other steps that will get them onto a better path.
I also hope that what we learn will be translated into practical tips and advice to help parents give their children the best future possible.