Childhood Aggression Predicts Drinking Problems
> 6/23/2008 1:03:32 PM

A longitudinal study spanning four decades has provided surprising conclusions on the demographics of alcohol abuse. Classic scapegoats like subpar education, dysfunctional family dynamics, and socioeconomic discrepancies do not have nearly the influence over future drinking habits that we’ve been led to believe. In a finding that contradicts the assumed conclusions of the past, researchers found that childhood aggression, along with the poor impulse control that it suggests, appears to be the single most reliable predictor of adult alcohol abuse.

Researchers at the University of Michigan drew data from the Columbia County Longitudinal Study, a project that began with nearly 900 third graders in upstate New York in 1960 and tracked their progress until the year 2000. The study collected demographic data from the somewhat homogenous population (90% Caucasian, largely working-class) as they aged, focusing on aggression, competence, career success and economic stability and the relationship between these variables. Behavioral trends, including the consumption of alcohol, were also observed. Several minor revelations came from the study, the most intriguing being a firm link drawn between early exposure to TV violence and the later development of an aggressive disposition.

But the University of Michigan’s major point was the relationship between these early signs of aggression and a later propensity for alcohol abuse. Drinking rates were, in general, fairly robust, with 30-year-old men enjoying, on average, 3 to 4 drinks at a time during 2 to 4 weekly sessions. Beyond that point, a behavioral gap began to emerge between separating the individuals who’d scored highest on childhood aggression measurements from the rest. Aggressive individuals often display a simultaneous lack of concern regarding the consequences of their actions, and this characteristic is known to enable substance abusers prone to drinking or using without thinking through the decision.

More unusual is the fact that individuals who were particularly popular throughout childhood and adolescence were more likely to develop drinking problems as adults. Several explanantions could explain this pattern. Individuals with more actively diverse social lives are likely to find themselves in many situations involving alcohol and may be encouraged to drink more through a popular pressure to conform to the behavioral standards of those with whom they associate at any given time.

Longitudinal studies of this nature often need to be considered in conjuction with other available research and data. While the information collected over decades may point to links, they are unable to prove any causation, and its just as likely that some correlating factor accoutns for aggression and alcholism or any other behavior, just as a family history of anxiety may underlie troubled homelife and then future drinking. That doesn't mean that patterns have no value. This study's actionable point holds though, as the parents and teachers of highly aggressive and non-responsive children should pay attention to their behaviors and be vigilant for drinking behaviors as they grow older, especially when assessing their preference for high-risk behaviors. Teaching these individuals to act in their own best interest may be difficult, but it could spare them from future problems with drug use, alcoholism, unsafe sexual habits and, eventually, the law. -Patrick Coffee

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