Attitudes about Alcohol among Pre-Teens

Attitudes about alcohol are consistent predictors of drinking. At the same time, alcohol use influences attitudes about drinking, often in a positive direction. A recent study by YSI researcher Megan Patrick and colleagues looks at attitudes toward drinking at the end of elementary school, among 11 year olds who were born in the UK and have not yet had alcohol.


In particular, the researchers explore the pre-teens’ positive expectations about drinking and ideas about how risky drinking is. They also look into environmental factors that may influence these early attitudes. To do so, they assess whether demographic factors like gender and parental education can predict family factors (like parent alcohol use and parent-child closeness) and child factors (like conduct problems and turning problems inward). Family and child factors may in turn predict pre-teen attitudes about alcohol use.


The study analyzed data from 11,097 children in the Millennium Cohort Study, a nationally representative, longitudinal study of children born in the UK. Family and child risk factors were gathered at ages 3, 5, and 7 for kids born between 2000 and 2002. At age 11 the children who said they had never had alcohol reported on their own attitudes about alcohol.


Results:  The alcohol attitudes of 11 year olds were found to vary by certain sociodemographic, family, and child factors. For example, boys had higher positive expectations about drinking than girls did. White British children had higher positive expectations about drinking and saw drinking as less risky than Black British and Asian British children did. Parent alcohol problems predicted that the children saw drinking as less risky. Higher parent-child conflict predicted that the kids were more likely to have positive expectations about drinking. If children had greater cognitive skills they were more likely to see drinking as risky, and if they internalized problems they were more likely to have positive expectations about drinking alcohol.


The researchers found indirect effects for sociodemographic factors that predicted positive expectations about drinking via parent-child conflict and a child’s internalizing problems. They also found sociodemographic factors that predicted how risky the 11 year olds perceived drinking to be, this time via parent alcohol problems and child cognitive skills.


The findings suggest that specific characteristics of families and children can indicate susceptibility to alcohol use based on children’s alcohol-related attitudes prior to ever having a drink. Since actual drinking tends to move alcohol attitudes into a positive direction for further alcohol use, prevention efforts may be able to use the window of time before drinking occurs to change alcohol-related attitudes in children. Intervention programs can also improve parenting and family relationships, and aim to delay alcohol use. Future research should examine more closely how the mechanisms that drive the development of alcohol attitudes work and how to use them as targets for early prevention.


Patrick, M. E., Wray-Lake, L., & Maggs, J. L. (2016). Early life predictors of alcohol-related attitudes among 11-year-old never drinkers. Addictive Behaviors, 66, 26-32. doi: 10.1016/j.addbeh.2016.10.025.