How many future behaviors are decided in childhood? As people enter their adolescence, their earlier temperament appears to be a good indicator for later behavior, such as alcohol abuse. Alcohol use, in those who develop abuse issues, is often established by age 15, and much of this is based on development from a young age.

In a new study of 6,504 boys and 6,143 girls born between 1991 and 1992, personality and behavior were analyzed from six months to five years of each child at six time points. Afterward, alcohol use was assessed at the age of 15. Researchers found that children, who — from the age of five — had issues with "emotional and conduct difficulties" and who were also labeled as "insociable" during the assessments, grew up to have elevated alcohol use and abuse issues. In both genders, the association between emotional and conduct difficulties and alcohol problems was illustrated in the teenagers through their reduced diligence and lower emotional stability.

"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 five that predict alcohol use and problems in mid-adolescence," said Danielle Dick, Ph.D., associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and co-author of the study. "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 association between sociability and alcohol problems was mediated through increased extraversion and thrill-seeking for both genders. Boys also showed likelihood to use alcohol due to peer pressure, and girls due to reduced emotional stability. Peer pressure as related to sociability, however, significantly increased alcohol consumption for girls by 23 percent. In children who were just noted as sociable, without behavioral issues, 35 percent of girls and 24 percent of boys were more likely to develop drinking issues by the age of 15.

Aside from these individual causes of increased alcohol use, the overall trend saw that emotional and behavioral problems at the age of five led to alcohol problems at the age of 15, despite the fact that they could not legally drink.

"A question largely unanswered by the existing literature concerns the origins of personality differences in adolescents or adults who do and do not have drinking problems," commented Matthew McGue, Ph.D., professor in the department of psychology at the University of Minnesota. "In my opinion, the major contribution of the current study is that it shows that these personality differences emerge very early in life."

"Temperament is considered to represent the biological foundations of later personality and is manifested in terms of basic reactivity and regulatory process," said McGue. "This study differs from other studies in two significant ways. First, other studies have typically focused on personality, which is normally assessed by self-report. This study indicates that those personality factors are the result, in part, of early temperamental expressions. Second, [the study] is a large and very well characterized longitudinal study. This allows the investigators to rigorously evaluate their hypothesis as well as provide them with the statistical power they need to explore important ancillary questions, such as whether the nature of personality risk differs in males and females, a gender effect they did not find in this study."

Identification of young children who are sociable with behavioral issues is a major point of this study — and a helpful one as well. However, it is important to note that the two personality traits noted in childhood are not hard and fast cues that a child will develop an alcohol abuse issue. The behaviors at the age of five serve as an explanation for, rather than definite predictor of, later abuse issues. Similarly, it is important to note that as result of sociability and peer pressure, children were likely to drink, even if they did not have behavioral issues.

The study, as expressed by McGue, has — for the first time — established potential warning signs for the development of alcohol abuse later in life, with little difference between genders. The researchers suggest teaching children how to deal with their emotions in the effort to turn them away from other substance abuse issues, including but certainly not limited to alcohol use.

Source: Dick DM, Aliev F, Latendresse SJ, et al. Adolescent Alcohol Abuse Is Predicted By Childhood Temperament Factors Before Age 5, With Mediation Through Personality and Peers. Alcoholism: Clincial and Experimental Research. 2013.