Childhood Behavior and Later Drug Use

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Social scientists can point with confidence to risk factors from childhood that predict drug use and deviance in adolescence. In general, the findings indicate that certain childhood personality traits, family experiences, and ecological factors strongly affect adolescent drug-using behavior.

A child who is irritable and easily distracted, who throws temper tantrums, fights often with siblings, and engages in predelinquent behavior is more likely than others to use drugs in adolescence. Other investigators have also found childhood Aggression to be a most powerful predictor of adolescent drug use and deviance.

Poor childhood impulse control and a difficult temperament have been related to adolescent marijuana use. When problematic factors continue into adolescence, both the use of illicit drugs and the psychopharmacological effects of some drugs may then actually serve to exacerbate and enlarge the adolescent's feelings of irritability and aggressivenessas evidenced by continuing temper tantrums, aggression, and delinquent behavior.

In addition to childhood personality traits that predict future drug use, family experiences can also serve as predictors. In a longitudinal study dealing with the early childhood precursors of adolescent drug use, researchers found that greater mother involvement with the child protected against later drug use. It has also been found that children who became frequent drug users had mothers who were cold and who gave them little encouragement. The connection between peer factors during childhood and later drug use has received little empirical study, although peer factors during adolescence are of demonstrable importance and have long been known to be so. Childhood ecological factors, such as relatively low socioeconomic status, are related to greater adolescent drug use.

Factors from childhood do not directly affect adolescent drug use; rather, they are mediated by the factors of adolescence. More specifically, the risk factors of childhood are associated with the risk factors of adolescenceand these, in turn, become related to drug use.

The risk factors of adolescence include aspects of unconventionality (such as rebelliousness); difficulty in the parent-child mutual attachment relation (such as low parental affection and identification); and the adolescent's associating with deviant peers. More specifically, findings indicate that non-achieving aggressive childrenthose with difficulty in emotional control and those who have received little economic and psychosocial supportare most likely to be rebellious adolescents, to have a conflictual, nonaffectionate relationship with their parents, and to be associated with deviant peers. Adolescent rebelliousness, difficulty in the parent-child attachment, and associating with deviant peers are the factors related to greater drug use in adolescence.


Because the risk factors of both childhood and adolescence come from different domains, a multi-factorial approach to drug-use prevention and treatment is essential. Moreover, since childhood drug-prone personality characteristics and adverse childhood experiences seem to determine adolescent risks for drug use, logic and social responsibility dictate that one intervene early in the development of a child at risk. Where needed or warranted, early intervention may facilitate the development of later drug-resistant personality traitsa positive parent-child bond and association with non-deviant peersand, consequently, the result should be lower drug use in the adolescent.

As children grow up, there are also several later points and distinct psychological domains at which it is possible to ameliorate drug use. During adolescence, for example, a decrease in the risk factors that relate to personality, family, or peers may also result in less to no drug use.

(See also: Child Abuse and Drugs ; Conduct Disorders ; Coping and Drug Use ; Families and Drug Use ; Family Violence and Substance Abuse ; Poverty and Drug Use )


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Brook, J. S., et al. (1992). African-American and Puerto Rican drug use: Personality, familial, and other environmental risk factors. Genetic, Social, and General Psychology Monographs, 118 (4), 417-438.

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Judith S. Brook

Patricia Cohen