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At What Age Do Addictive Behaviors Usually Begin?

In the 1970s, “Sarah T. – Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic,” a made-for-television movie, depicted addictive behaviors, and specifically alcoholism, as developing at a young age. The protagonist was only 15 years old when she began attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, having already progressed to a full-blown addiction to alcohol. In one of her meetings, Sarah meets a fellow alcoholic who is even younger than she is. At the time, it was seen as shocking and eye-opening that alcoholism could develop at such a young age.
addictive behaviors

Addictive behaviors can develop during childhood, and depending upon the substance or behavior, precursors to addiction can be present as early as age 10. Factors that impact the age of onset of addictive behaviors include:

  • Availability of the substance. Sniffing or huffing legal household products, including air fresheners, has been documented in children as young as 8. Addictive substances that are already in the home (such as tobacco or alcohol) also present a risk, especially if additional risk factors are present.
  • Family problems, recent trauma, abuse, neglect, domestic violence or other chronic family dysfunction all can contribute to a feeling of needing to escape from reality. When reality is painful or frightening, addictive behaviors may present a much-needed escape.
  • Genetic or biological factors may also predispose children and teens for developing addictive behaviors. Some studies indicate that transmission of alcoholism has a genetic component. In other words, both “nature” and “nurture” may play significant roles as risk factors for developing addictive behaviors.
  • In teens, emotional and intellectual developmental factors also increase the risk of developing addictive behaviors. Studies confirm that teens are more impulsive than adults and have not yet fully developed sophisticated decision-making or risk-assessment abilities.

Given that addictive behaviors may develop at a young age, treatment is recommended at an equally young age. Helping teens overcome addictive behaviors by developing coping mechanisms and emotional skills can help prevent a lifetime of difficulty.

Posted on February 24th, 2017

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