Background: Recent animal and human studies indicate that the exposure to alcohol during early adolescence increases the risk for heavy alcohol use in response to stress. The purpose of this study was to examine whether this effect may be the consequence of a higher susceptibility to develop “drinking to cope” motives among early initiators.
Methods: Data from 320 participants were collected as part of the Mannheim Study of Children at Risk, an ongoing epidemiological cohort study. Structured interviews at age 15 and 19 were used to assess age at first alcohol experience and drunkenness. The young adults completed questionnaires to obtain information about the occurrence of stressful life events during the past 4 years and current drinking habits. In addition, alcohol use under conditions of negative states was assessed with the Inventory of Drinking Situations.
Results: The probability of young adults’ alcohol use in situations characterized by unpleasant emotions was significantly increased the earlier they had initiated the use of alcohol, even when controlling for current drinking habits and stressful life events. Similar results were obtained for the age at first drunkenness.
Conclusions: The findings strengthen the hypothesis that alcohol experiences during early adolescence facilitate drinking to regulate negative affect as an adverse coping strategy which may represent the starting point of a vicious circle comprising drinking to relieve stress and increased stress as a consequence of drinking.