Academic journal article Alcohol Research

A Developmental Perspective on Underage Alcohol Use

Academic journal article Alcohol Research

A Developmental Perspective on Underage Alcohol Use

Article excerpt

Despite efforts to prevent underage (1) alcohol consumption, alcohol use remains a pervasive problem among adolescents in the United States. Although the prevalence of underage drinking decreased from its peak in the mid-1970s until about 1993, it has remained relatively constant since that time, with the exception of some recent modest downturns in certain age-groups (Johnston et al. 2007). Underage alcohol use remains at unacceptably high levels across all age-groups. A promising approach to preventing and reducing underage drinking and its adverse effects is to address underage alcohol use as a developmental phenomenon--a problem shaped by the course and contexts of human development and one that also has an array of consequences for development. This article provides a developmental perspective on underage drinking, with a brief overview of the developmental changes of childhood and adolescence, as well as of the interplay of genetic and environmental factors that could play a role in the development and consequences of underage alcohol use. The article then explores various observations supporting the status of alcohol use as a developmental problem, including age-varying patterns of alcohol use and its consequences, alcohol's effects on development, childhood factors predicting later alcohol use and alcohol use disorders (AUDs), and risk and protective factors associated with alcohol use and dependence. Finally, the article discusses how principles of developmental psychopathology can guide researchers, clinicians, and policymakers in their efforts to understand and address underage drinking.


The term "development," as used in this article, refers to patterns of orderly change that unfold over the lifetime as human beings progress from conception to maturity and then decline and death. Although people change and develop throughout their lives, some of the most rapid and pronounced changes take place during childhood and adolescence. Many of these changes have the potential to affect a young person's interactions and involvement with alcohol.

Characterizing Developmental Change

There are several ways to characterize the changes that take place during the first three decades of life. All such descriptions are an attempt to capture the complex, dynamic processes of development from conception to maturity.

One traditional way to describe developmental change is to divide development into age-related segments and delineate normative behaviors and changes that usually occur in these segments of the life course. These developmental categories often begin and end with significant transitions, such as birth or the transition into school. Common developmental categories include the following:

* Prenatal: from conception to birth.

* Early childhood: from birth to approximately age 5, encompassing infancy, the toddler years, and the preschool period.

* Middle childhood: from entering school (around age 4 or 5) to the transition into adolescence, which is heralded by signs of puberty and changes in school or social contexts (around age 8 to 10).

* Adolescence: encompasses the onset of puberty, secondary school transitions, and the second decade of life (from around age 8 to 10 to approximately age 18 to 20).

* Transition-to-adulthood (sometimes called "emerging adulthood"): from approximately age 18 to 25.

A second way to describe developmental change is in terms of developmental tasks and accomplishments characteristically expected and achieved during a given time period. Some of these tasks are universal, whereas others are specific to a given culture, place, or time in history (for more information, see also the textboxes "Developmental Tasks and Transitions" and "Appropriate Drinking Behavior as a Developmental Task"). Examples of common developmental tasks in many contemporary societies include the following:

In early childhood:

* Forming attachment bonds with caregivers;

* Talking and learning the native language of the family; and

* Complying with and following simple adult commands. …

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