How Do Conduct Problems Affect Teen Alcohol Use?

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teen-alcohol-use-problemsConduct problems are disruptive or dysfunctional behaviors that reduce a person’s willingness or ability to follow established norms or a specific code of conduct. Young children and teenagers sometimes develop forms of these behaviors that are serious enough to qualify for an official mental health diagnosis. In a study published in November 2013 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, a team of British and American researchers looked at the potential impact of conduct problems on the frequency of alcohol consumption during adolescence. These researchers concluded that conduct problems have a strong influence on drinking levels in young teenagers.

Conduct Problem Basics

Virtually all children stray from accepted codes of behavior at one time or another. Common reasons for these conduct changes include a natural need to explore the boundaries of parental authority, a natural need to try out new or different behaviors with other children, and a natural desire to explore one’s surrounding environment. As a rule, conduct problems arise when the expected exploration of accepted behaviors turns into unusually frequent or intense defiance of rules or authority and decreases the affected individual’s ability to interact well with parents, other family members, teachers or other authority figures outside of the household, or age peers.

Conduct-Based Disorders

When a pattern of disruptive, dysfunctional conduct becomes fixed over time, doctors typically consider diagnosing that pattern as a mental health condition. Children and teenagers can be diagnosed with either of two specific conditions, called oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) and conduct disorder. Individuals diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder display a recurring pattern of hostility, disobedience or defiance toward their parents or any other adult who holds a position of authority. Specific symptoms associated with the condition include frequent loss of temper, frequent arguing with parents or other adults, commission of malicious or vengeful acts, lack of a fully developed circle of friends and repeated conduct violations at school. While most affected children develop these symptoms at or near age 8, some children develop them years earlier.

Conduct disorder is viewed as a more serious condition than oppositional defiant disorder. Children and teenagers diagnosed with the disorder commonly exhibit symptoms such as pointless rule violation, purposeful lying, truancy, acts of aggression or cruelty focused on animals, acts of aggression or cruelty focused on other people and acts of vandalism or arson. Substance abuse also frequently appears in the form of excessive alcohol consumption or excessive drug use.

Conduct Problems and Teen Alcohol Use

In the study, researchers from King’s College London, the University of Bristol and Virginia Commonwealth University used a long-term British project called the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children to examine the impact of conduct problems on teenagers’ chances of using alcohol. Specifically, they looked at alcohol intake patterns established between the age of 13 and 15, as well as dangerous levels of alcohol intake at age 16. Between the ages of 4 and 13, all of the participants were checked on a regular basis for behaviors that indicated the presence of conduct problems.

Some of the children involved in the study developed conduct problems at an early age (a time when oppositional defiant disorder diagnoses typically occur). Other children developed conduct problems during their teen years (a time when both ODD and conduct disorder diagnoses may occur). In addition, some of the participating children exhibited little or no sign of conduct-related difficulties. The researchers concluded that boys who develop significant conduct problems at an early age or during adolescence have sharply increased chances of drinking excessive amounts of alcohol between the ages of 13 and 15. Girls with a similar behavioral history also drink excessively in the interval between age 13 and 15; however, they typically consume less alcohol than their male peers.


Boys and girls diagnosed with significant conduct problems during early childhood or adolescence also have increased chances of consuming dangerously high levels of alcohol at age 16. However, compared to the general teen population, the disparity in risk here is much lower. In fact, the study authors note, despite the risk elevation associated with conduct-related difficulties, dangerous drinking at age 16 occurs more frequently overall among teens not affected by conduct problems. For this reason, the authors urge public health officials to target their drinking prevention efforts on teenagers as a whole, in addition to more focused efforts aimed specifically at teens with histories of conduct problems.