Preschool Personality May Predict Teenage Alcohol Use

VCU researcher part of team studying the developmental pathways to alcohol-related outcomes

Preschool Personality May Predict Teenage Alcohol Use

A new study shows that the way children behave before they turn 5 years old may predict their alcohol use as teenagers.

There are few studies that chart developmental pathways from early childhood to adolescent alcohol-related outcomes, but an international research team, led by Danielle Dick, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, evaluated the impact of childhood temperament on later alcohol use and problems.

Most risk and protective factors for alcohol have roots in early childhood. An individual enters adolescence with personality characteristics and life experiences that have accumulated during the first decade of life. An evaluation by the research team of measures of temperament from children 6 months through 5 years of age has found that childhood temperament prior to age 5 predicts adolescent alcohol use at age 15.5 years, even after controlling for socio-demographic factors and parental alcohol problems.

“Most scientists who study alcohol use start studying people in adolescence, since that is when alcohol use is usually first initiated/experimented with,” said Dick, a faculty member in the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics at VCU and lead author of the study. “But people don’t enter adolescence as blank slates; they have a history of life experiences that they bring with them, dating back to early childhood. This is one of the most comprehensive attempts to understand very early childhood predictors of adolescent alcohol use in a large epidemiological cohort.”

Dick and her colleagues used data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), a large epidemiological sample of pregnant women with delivery dates between April 1991 and December 1992. The children (6,504 boys, 6,143 girls) were followed longitudinally. Temperamental characteristics were assessed at six time points from 6 to 69 months of age. Alcohol use and problems were assessed at age 15.5 years.

“Some of the most interesting findings to emerge from this study are that: one, we can identify childhood temperamental styles that emerge prior to age 5 that predict alcohol use and problems in mid-adolescence,” said Dick. “Two, the early childhood temperamental styles that predict alcohol use are very different and largely uncorrelated – that both kids who show consistent emotional and behavioral problems early on are at elevated risk and kids who are consistently sociable at a very early age are also at risk.  This indicates very different pathways to alcohol involvement/patterns, that emerge early on, which has important implications for prevention efforts.”

The team found that the association between sociability and alcohol use was more significant than the association between emotional and conduct difficulties and alcohol use.

“This underscores the fact that drinking during adolescence is largely a social phenomenon,” Dick said. “However, this doesn’t mean it’s less problematic; we know from other studies that most adolescent drinking is high risk – for example, binge drinking – and can lead to numerous negative consequences.”

Dick noted the importance of searching for what may lead to adolescent drinking when trying to understand the development of patterns of alcohol use, such as predictors that emerge very early in life.  

“All things considered, it’s not just ‘problem kids’ who get involved in alcohol use.  It’s also the highly sociable kids as well,” said Dick. “Parents should be aware of this.”

Results from the study will be published in the December 2013 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research and are currently available at Early View.

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Danielle Dick, Ph.D.
Danielle Dick, Ph.D.