Academic journal article Alcohol Research

Transitions into Underage and Problem Drinking: Summary of Developmental Processes and Mechanisms: Ages 10-15

Academic journal article Alcohol Research

Transitions into Underage and Problem Drinking: Summary of Developmental Processes and Mechanisms: Ages 10-15

Article excerpt

As described in the preceding article by Zucker and colleagues, even children under the age of 10 can recognize alcohol, begin to form some opinions regarding its use and the consequences of that use, and may even have their first experiences with alcohol. Moreover, various risk and protective factors already are active during this early developmental period that influence drinking behavior during adolescence and adulthood. All of these processes continue during the developmental period from ages 10 to 15, which is the time when many adolescents begin experimenting with alcohol. This article takes a closer look at the relationship between the developmental period from ages 10 to 15 and the use of alcohol. The chapter begins with an overview of normative human development for the age-group (i.e., what is expected at different times and what is typical and atypical at a particular age). It then discusses alcohol use during early and middle adolescence and the risk and protective factors related to underage drinking and to future use.


The period from age 10 to 15 years encompasses early adolescence and the beginning of middle adolescence. It is characterized by dramatic changes in biological, cognitive, emotional, and social processes, as well as in physical and social environments. Puberty is a hallmark of this period. Importantly, during the past century the average age of puberty has decreased, with ramifications for adolescent social functioning and behavior. The period from age 10 to 15 also is notable for transitions such as moving from elementary to middle school and from middle school to high school. Moreover, self-identity issues become important during this period, as do peer and societal expectations, including those involving the use of alcohol. In fact, it is the period during which many young people initiate alcohol use and when drinking and binge drinking escalate. The table summarizes the developmental periods, transitions, contexts, tasks, and issues that characterize the 10-15 age-group.

Characterizing Change in Early and Middle Adolescence

The timing and tempo of various developmental processes varies both within and across individuals. Some changes of early and middle adolescence are closely related to chronological age, such as grade in school. Other changes are more closely aligned with developmental stage, such as puberty, interest in the opposite sex, and the relative importance of peers.


The changes in the secretory patterns of gonadal steroids that define the onset of puberty generally begin by age 10. They are accompanied by changes in the central nervous system and neurophysiology as well as by increasingly apparent changes in physical appearance (e.g., height, body composition, and the appearance of secondary sexual characteristics). However, significant individual variation as well as variation across racial and ethnic groups exists in these processes. For example, breast and pubic hair development in non-Hispanic White girls typically begins around age 10.5, and a year earlier in non-Hispanic Black girls, with Hispanic girls falling in between. The average age at menarche is later, beginning around age 12.5 in non-Hispanic White girls and a few months earlier in non-Hispanic Black girls.

Although the growth spurt associated with puberty occurs later in boys than girls, generalizations to other aspects of puberty can be misleading. For non-Hispanic Whites, the median onset of pubic hair development was found to occur later in boys than girls (12.0 vs. 10.6 years), whereas the median onset of genital development in boys occurred earlier (10.0 years) than the onset of breast development in girls (10.4 years) (Sun et al. 2002).

Changes in the Developing Brain

During adolescence, a series of maturational changes occurs in the brain as a result of hormonal changes and the accrual of experience. …

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