Early-Maturing Girls With Autonomy at Risk for Alcohol Abuse

Marcia Frellick

September 24, 2015

Early-maturing girls entering secondary school with little supervision from parents have a considerably higher risk for dramatic increases in problem drinking, new research shows.

Findings published online September 21 in Pediatrics include an advisory for physicians: "Practitioners presented with early maturing girls may well consider advising parents about the unique risks confronting these children," the authors write.

Daniel J. Dickson, MA, from the Department of Psychology, Florida Atlantic University in Fort Lauderdale, and colleagues surveyed a sample of 957 Swedish girls every year for 4 years beginning in the first year of secondary school (about 13 years old) and asked them about alcohol intoxication, perceptions of how much autonomy their parents granted, and age for first menstrual period.

They found that from grades 7 to 10, there was an estimated 12% increase in perceived parent autonomy granting at low levels of adolescent alcohol abuse (β, 0.45; P < .001), an 18% increase in perceived parent autonomy granting at medium levels of adolescent alcohol abuse (β, 0.55; P < .001), and a 24% increase in perceived parent autonomy granting at high levels (β = 0.79; P < .001).

Multiple-group, parallel process growth curve models showed that early maturity exacerbated the risk. Alcohol intoxication rates increased three times faster for early-maturing girls with the greatest autonomy compared with rates for early-maturing girls with the least autonomy.

Levels of autonomy were determined by surveys that asked girls questions such as whether parents let them decide when to come home at night. Answers were scored from 1 (never) to 3 (most often) and then averaged. Internal reliability was adequate (α = 0.77 - 0.82).

The authors warn that adolescent alcohol consumption cannot be downplayed as just normal experimentation. "Early adolescent drinking forecasts a host of long-term adjustment difficulties," they write. Among the consequences they cite are links to the spread of infectious disease, depression, suicide, accidents, and violence.

The researchers note that their findings parallels results from other studies indicating that parents respond to child conduct problems by decreasing supervision.

Dickson and colleagues found that parents granted more autonomy as a function of alcohol abuse.

"Decreasing supervision may be the product of a negative reinforcement trap, wherein parents are reinforced when they desist from control attempts," the authors write. Parents may pull away when the child successfully limits parent knowledge or convinces them they need less oversight, the authors write.

Support for the 10 to 18 Project was provided by the Swedish Research Council. The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health. One coauthor received support from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the US National Science Foundation.

Pediatrics. Published online September 21, 2015. Abstract

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