Our children grow quickly, jumping from innocent exploration to problematic behaviors. Normal teenage experimentation easily morphs into ghastly habits that grossly impact normal development. Addiction horror stories frighten our hopes and dreams. Too many parents mourn the loss of a child. I’m no stranger to these fears. Naturally we want to know the risk factors for future addiction. Perhaps, we can avoid some of the mistakes that put our children at risk.
My middle son is lost in the whirlwind of addiction. After a career in law-enforcement, I thought I understood the nasties—I didn’t.
I’m saddened by addiction’s devastating power to ravage normal psychological development, laying waste to motivation, clear thinking, and healthy social interaction. I’m straddled with guilt. Reliving the past, searching for parenting missteps I made during his formative years? These mind searches are fruitless. I’ll never discover a satisfactory answer—the past can’t be relived; alternate solutions can’t be implemented. We’re stuck in the present. So, I accept the unknown, and focus on his recovery.However, I have grandchildren now. Are there lessons that I can impart on my young children raising families of their own? If I could go back in time, say fifteen years, what signs should’ve I looked for? What behaviors and character traits would’ve signaled vulnerability? We must know what to look for before we can intervene and, perhaps, save a beloved child from the debilitating consequences of addiction.
“So, I accept the unknown, and focus on his recovery.”~T. Franklin Murphy
Complex Network of Factors
A complex network of risk factors influences child development that lead to addiction. Environment being a significant one. Over the last several decades, many adolescent studies examining predictors of alcohol misuse have provided wonderful insights. However, majority of the studies fail to isolate individual characteristics from environmental influences.
In a recent longitudinal study (Stephenson, et al. 2020), researchers examined the lives of 1435 twin pairs to identify some individual predictors when one twin falls into early adult alcohol abuse and the other does not.
Stephenson and his research team followed pairs of twins from adolescence into early adulthood. Since twins share an environment, researchers could reasonably factor out some of the environmental influence and identify some of the individual differences that possibly attributed to later problems.
“Some signs of risk can be seen as early as infancy or early childhood, such as aggressive behavior, lack of self-control, or difficult temperament. As the child gets older, interactions with family, at school, and within the community can affect that child’s risk for later drug abuse.”~National Institute on Drug Abuse
The environment is most amendable to influence. As a parent, we can’t ignore the environment. This research isn’t suggesting the environment is inconsequential; the findings just add to the repertoire of knowledge to assist in the fight against addiction. We lose too many bright minds. This research teams’ study must be examined under this light.
Children are resilient. Even when an environment is harmful, most adolescents survive, phasing out of unhealthy patterns as they mature into adults. Sadly, many don’t. For some, excessive binge drinking at parties and weekends morphs into something life altering as they become adults. Individual characteristics and behaviors may sound an early alarm, warning of vulnerabilities to lifelong disruptions and susceptibility to get sucked into maladaptive lifestyles.
Parenting Styles that Create Higher Risk of Addiction
Extensive literature has identified parenting styles that create low levels of child autonomy, provide limited monitoring, and lack warmth and involvement increase probabilities of future substance abuse. We also know that early experimentation of intoxicating substances, poor academic performance and behavior deviance are robust predictors.
These findings were largely confirmed by Stephenson et al. when they examined their research data. However, when they compared twins to each other within these broader categories, a slightly different picture surfaced.
So, what did Stephenson and fellow researchers find? The two major predictors were early adolescent use and positive alcohol expectancies. No surprise. However, a third unexpected major predictor was academic performance with the “individuals with higher grades in adolescents compared to their co-twin reported higher young adult alcohol use” (2020, p. 5).
Let’s stop for a moment, before we panic over little Johnny’s ‘A’ in biology, we must remember that individual findings indicate that lower academic performance is a more robust predictor of future troubles. The odd contradictory finding among twins must be filed away until additional studies discredit the finding or explain the value of its presence.
Biological Predictors of Addiction
We know that addiction runs in families. This doesn’t necessarily suggest environment, families also pass along biological traits. Lisa N. Legrand, William G. Iacono and Matt McGue explain in their article on addiction risk factors that “the inherited risk corresponds to a certain temperament or disposition that goes along with so-called externalizing tendencies” (2005, p. 142). Legrand et al. continue “in childhood, externalizing traits include hyperactivity, ‘oppositionality’ (negative and defiant behavior) and antisocial behavior, which breaks institutional and social rules. An antisocial child may lie, get in fights, steal, vandalize or skip school” (p. 142).
Tendencies are Not Prophesies
Tendencies are not prophesies. An association is not a conviction to an inevitable ending. Just because a teenager or child checks a few boxes, suggesting heightened risk, doesn’t mean they are doomed.
We all escape childhood with notable glitches. Some of those glitches may lead to larger problems. Our task is to modify our responses, work with our flaws, and find a way to succeed in relationships, careers, and society. Most of us do this fairly well.
The other two findings: early adolescent use and positive expectation of use are worthy of attention. When a child explores intoxicating substance early, their behavior should raise a red flag of warning. This danger sign is repeated found in almost all studies. We must quickly act upon early alcohol and illegal drug use with protective interventions.
The other predictor, positive alcohol expectancy, deserves some attention.
Carlos DiClemente, known for his stages of change, explains, “expectancies are very influential in the evaluation of decisional considerations that influence movement from Contemplation to Preparation, Preparation to Action, and Action to Maintenance” (2018, p. 96). Cognitive expectations of the outcome significantly influenced our decisions . DiClemente further argues that positive expectancy coupled with a minimal worry of negative consequences, such as nobody cares, is a deadly combination, facilitating a rapid movement towards addiction (p. 84).
We learn expectancies through experience. Peer influence, media exposure, and over-exuberant warnings and permissive attitudes team together to create the expectation. Caregiver and older sibling behaviors provide a road map. “Do what I say, not what I do” doesn’t work. The conflicting advice discredits words. Many parents like scare tactics, exaggerating the consequences of use by confusing the impact of casual and experimental use with the devastation of addiction. Even school drug awareness programs such as “Just Say No” often convey this false message. Contrary to well-meaning advice, life doesn’t self-destruct from initial substance use.
If we design our parental advice to strike fear, our fiery sermons will lose persuasiveness once warnings fail to materialize with early experimentation. The curious child often finds initial use pleasurable, relieving social anxieties, and elevating social status among their experimenting peers. Their personal experience often discredits the negative information received from parents and programs.
Helping Adolescents Explore the Risks and Consequences
Perhaps, as parents, mentors, or therapists, we must reach a little deeper to discover a child’s hidden expectancies, explore realities, helping the adolescent explore risks and possible hurtful consequences from continued use of intoxicating substances. Deep insights come from continued interaction where we utilize proven parenting styles to support development—a style that supports autonomous behavior, monitors child activities, and expresses warmth during substantial involvement throughout the formative years.
We don’t have to be perfect as parents, nor can we expect that perfect parenting will save every child from nasty experiences of abused freedoms. We just can do our best, confront our own demons, and persist through difficulties to be a supportive example, giving guidance, encouraging autonomous development by helping the child internalize values, and carefully monitoring for warning signs of danger.
We never know where our efforts will pay off. We simply do our best, offer our children educated support, and cross our fingers that they will survive the critical years, and come into their own as productive, happy adults.
DiClemente, C. C (2018). Addiction and Change, Second Edition: How Addictions Develop and Addicted People Recover. The Guilford Press; Second edition.
Legrand, L. N., Iacono, W. G., McGue, M. (2005) Predicting Addiction. Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society.
Miller, W. R., Rollnick, S. (2012). Motivational Interviewing: Helping People Change, 3rd Edition (Applications of Motivational Interviewing). The Guilford Press; 3rd edition.
Rogers, C. R. (2012) On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy. Mariner Books; 2nd ed. Edition.
Stephenson, M., Barr, P., Ksinan, A., Aliev, F., Latvala, A., Viken, R., Rose, R., Kaprio, J., Dick, D., & Salvatore, J. (2020). Which adolescent factors predict alcohol misuse in young adulthood? A co‐twin comparisons study. Addiction, 115(5), 877-887.