Young people drink for a variety of reasons. While they are in the transition from adolescence to adulthood, children are passing through the dramatic physical and emotional changes of puberty, as well as receiving increased independence and responsibilities.
Being an adolescent today is a risk factor in and of itself for experimenting with drugs and alcohol and possibly developing dangerous drinking and drug habits. According to a study from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism here are the reasons young people drink:
Alcohol research is beginning to focus on how expectancy influences drinking patterns from childhood through adolescence and into young adulthood. How families view alcohol and it’s effects influences the drinking behavior of adolescents, including whether they begin to drink, when and how much. An adolescent who expects drinking to be enjoyable is more likely to drink than one who expects it to be unpleasant. Attitudes and beliefs about alcohol are established before the child begins elementary school. Prior to age 9, children generally view drinking alcohol as unpleasant and bad, with negative effects. Generally, by age 13 their expectancies shift, becoming more positive because their peers and the media can easily influence them.
Social and biological factors that intersect to increase or decrease a person’s risk for alcohol problems, including tolerance to the effects of alcohol, may be directly linked to genetics. Being a child of an alcoholic or having several alcoholic family members positions an adolescent for greater risk for alcohol problems. Children of alcoholics are 4 to 10 times more likely to become alcoholics than are children who have no close family history of alcoholism. Children of alcoholics also are more likely to begin drinking at a young age and to progress to drinking problems more quickly. Research also shows that children of alcoholics may have slight brain variances, which could be indicators for developing alcohol problems later in life. Some studies suggest that these variances may be mainly evident in adolescents who also have certain behavioral traits, such as signs of conduct disorder, antisocial personality disorder, sensation-seeking, or poor impulse control. By studying the way the brain functions and its structure and how that converts to behavior, helps scientists to better understand how pre-drinking risk factors influence later alcohol use. One example of this is: does a person who is depressed drink to alleviate his or her depression, or does drinking lead to changes in his brain that result in feelings of depression? By studying the genetic makeup of people and families with alcohol dependence, researchers have found specific areas on chromosomes that relate to a risk for alcoholism.
Genetic factors can never tell the whole story as to why adolescents are drawn to drink. Drinking behavior is a multifaceted relationship between inherited and environmental factors, and the associations of these relationships are still in the beginning stages of examination. Factors that influence drinking at one age may not have the same influence at another age.
The influence of parents and peers, also have their role in alcohol use. Parents who drink more and who have a favorable view of drinking may have children who drink more, and a young girl with an adult boyfriend is more likely to use alcohol and other drugs.
Other environmental influences are being examined as well, such as the impact of the media and social media. Today alcohol is readily available and aggressively promoted through television, radio, billboards, and the Internet. A study on how young people react to these advertisements conducted on 3rd, 6th, and 9th graders, who found alcohol ads desirable were more likely to view drinking positively and to want to purchase products with alcohol logos. However, research is varied regarding whether these positive views of alcohol actually lead to underage drinking.
The brain of an adolescent is still developing well into the twenties and this can result in immaturity. This immaturity manifests in impulsivity and the inability to recognize that their actions – such as drinking – have consequences. This lengthy developmental process can also be attributed to a propensity to seek out new and potentially dangerous situations. For some adolescents, thrill-seeking might include experimenting with alcohol. Teens also lack the cause and effect life experience that many adults have lived through, which leads them to concrete reasons to abstain from dangerous behavior. Because they are underage, it is also usually the parent who pays the consequences for their child’s drinking, so again, the child does not learn from their mistakes.
Tolerance and Sensitivity to Alcohol
Differences between the brain of a still maturing adolescent and the brain of an adult also may help to clarify why many young drinkers are able to consume much larger amounts of alcohol than adults before they experience the negative consequences of drinking, such as lack of coordination, drowsiness, and withdrawal/hangover effects. This apparent tolerance may also explain the high rates of binge drinking among young adults. Young people may also drink more than adults because they appear to be very susceptible to the positive effects of drinking alcohol like feeling more at ease in social situations.
Personality Characteristics and Psychiatric Co-morbidity
Children who begin to drink before the age of 12 often share similar personality characteristics that may make them more likely to start drinking. Adolescents who are: disruptive, hyperactive, aggressive, antisocial, depressed, withdrawn, or anxious, may be at greatest risk for alcohol problems. Other behavior problems associated with alcohol use include rebelliousness, difficulty avoiding harm or harmful situations, and a host of other traits seen in young people who act out without regard for rules or the feelings of others.
Whatever the reasons: a genetic predisposition, environmental factors or the “luck-of-the-draw,” adolescents who drink are at a greater risk for health and relationship problems, trouble with the law, accidents, physical impairment, etc. Understanding is one element but understanding alone is not a solution to the problem. Taking action is imperative when a parent notices a problem with alcohol or drugs in their child.