Developmental Factors Affect Alcohol Use, and Alcohol Use Affects Development

On its website, the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse (NIAAA) details the many important factors that influence whether an adolescent will choose to drink and the effects that alcohol use has on an adolescent’s development. Here are key excerpts from the posting:

How Development Affects Alcohol Use

Family – Families exert great influence on a child’s development. Parents that are warm, happy and exercise moderate levels of discipline offer a positive environment for human development. Homes marked by conflict, depression or aggressiveness toward the child can hinder the child’s ability to learn self-regulation and increase the risk of early alcohol use. Personality – Personality is in some respects innate, but is also influenced by experience. The innate aspect is evident in that many personality characteristics can be identified well before a child reaches school age. Experience can moderate vulnerabilities or strengthen positive qualities. Children who exhibit anxiety, shyness, depression and lack of self-control often face a greater risk for alcohol use while they are still young adults. Uneven Brain Development – The human brain does not develop uniformly. In fact, the uneven maturing of the brain may be responsible for many youthful behaviors including underage drinking. The greatest disparity lies between emotional development and the brain’s ability to govern those emotions. In other words, young people first learn to experience a range of intense feelings well before the self-control areas of the brain are prepared to wisely regulate and override those feelings. Peer Influence – Adolescents are experiencing a new world of social relationship as they begin to separate from the family identity. Strong social bonds are part of this identity formation and therefore can easily become an area of vulnerability when peers exert pressure to drink.

How Alcohol Use Affects Development

Just as developmental factors can influence a youth’s risk for underage drinking, kids who drink during these turbulent years will likely see negative consequences in several developmental areas. Relationships – Relationships, both with friends and family, are integral to the child’s healthy social development and self-concept. The harm done to relationships because of drinking interferes with that development. Performance – Drinking hinders focus both in the short term and in general. This means that adolescents who choose to drink will frequently have poor attendance and performance in school. This has several negative implications for the young person, from hindered educational opportunities to damaged self-image. Mental Health – Experts suggest that youth who start drinking (especially before age 15) face an increased risk of later alcohol use disorders. Some research shows that even those who begin drinking in late adolescence still face a higher risk for adult alcohol abuse.

What to Do

Problems don’t go away when ignored. Intervention to help young people with alcohol use change course may be home-based, school-based or a mix of the two. Although changes that occur in a child’s life anytime from age 10 to 21 could create a risk for alcohol use, evidence shows that most drinking begins between ages 12 and 14. Interventions at this point seem to hold more promise.

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