Gifted Adolescents and Alcohol
All parents worry about their children becoming involved with alcohol use. But what about parents of academically gifted students? Do they have less to worry about because their children do well in school? A recent study asked this exact question and the results may surprise you.
In 1965, Americans were 17.5 years old on average when they tried their first alcohol. Forty years later in 2005, that age had dropped to roughly 14 years old. In fact, nearly 40 percent of US eighth grade students have tried alcohol at least once. For some this may be only a single drink, but over half of high school seniors and 18 percent of eighth graders report having been drunk.
Such findings are important because alcohol consumption plays a role in delinquency, car crashes, increased risky sexual behavior, sexual assault, and may also influence cognitive development. However, adolescents who drink are often perceived by their peers to be more confident and to have better friendships than those who did not drink.
Alcohol and Giftedness
Relatively little research has been done looking at how the experiences of gifted and talented adolescents with alcohol. This is interesting because academic achievement is typically believed to act as a protective factor against risky behaviors like adolescent alcohol use. Moreover, although gifted students are often viewed as well-adjusted and well-liked by their fellow students, there is also a common perception that giftedness is associated with problems relating to peers.
However, a new study asks whether gifted students turned to alcohol to try to fit in better with their peers. Additionally, the study asks the students themselves, their peers, and teachers report measures of academic grades, aggression, leadership, peer relationships, self-esteem.
Findings and Implications
The study results showed that gifted students’ alcohol use did not differ from the rest of the student population at the school. About 37 percent of students reported drinking alcohol by seventh grade. 13.8 percent of nongifted and 7 percent of gifted students reported having alcohol in the last 30 days.
However, researchers found that the gifted students who had tried alcohol were less at risk than their nongifted peers who had also tried alcohol. More specifically, nongifted students who had tried alcohol were the most likely group to be delinquent, overtly aggressive, have deviant friends, and to have friends who also had tried alcohol. However, gifted students who had tried alcohol were no more likely to have deviant friends than gifted students who hadn’t had alcohol.
Alcohol use was also associated with some more positive outcomes. For example, teachers and other students were more likely to view adolescents who had tried alcohol as leaders and were better liked by peers.
It should be noted that these results come from only one study conducted in one school and that the causes for such different outcomes from trying alcohol are unknown. Moreover, they should not be interpreted as implying that trying alcohol has no negative consequences for gifted adolescents.
Instead, the results show that the causes of and impact from such behaviors may be quite different for gifted and nongifted adolescents. Gifted adolescents who try alcohol may be doing so in an attempt to be social and to fit in and not to be deviant or rebel. The new study did not follow the students long-term and thus it is not known how alcohol use in early adolescents affects gifted students long-term.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, offers numerous resources pertaining to underage drinking. They recommend that parents talk with their children “early and often” about alcohol. They also provide a free action guide for topics of discussion throughout the year (store.samhsa.gov/product/SMA-3259). For a more complete list of strategies, visit the SAMSHA website: www.samhsa.gov/prevention.
Johnston, L. D., O’Malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., & Schulenberg, J. E. (2008). Monitoring the future: National results on adolescent drug use. Overview of key findings, 2007 (NIH Publication No. 08-6418). Bethesda, MD: National Institute on Drug Abuse. For General adolescent alcohol use
Peairs, K. F., Eichen, D., Putallaz, M., Costanzo, P. R., & Grimes, C. L. (2011). Academic giftedness and alcohol use in early adolescence. Gifted Child Quarterly, 55, 95-110.