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Incipient alcohol use in childhood: Early alcohol sipping and its relations with psychopathology and personality

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 June 2020

Ashley L. Watts
Department of Psychological Sciences, University of Missouri, Columbia, MI, USA
Phillip K. Wood
Department of Psychological Sciences, University of Missouri, Columbia, MI, USA
Kristina M. Jackson
Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies, Brown University, Providence, USA
Krista M. Lisdahl
Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Milwaukee, WI, USA
Mary M. Heitzeg
Department of Psychiatry, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA
Raul Gonzalez
Department of Psychology, Florida International University, Miami, FL, USA
Susan F. Tapert
Department of Psychiatry, University of California San Diego, La Jolla, CA, USA
Deanna M. Barch
Departments of Psychological & Brain Sciences, Psychiatry and Radiology, Washington University, St. Louis, MO, USA
Kenneth J. Sher
Department of Psychological Sciences, University of Missouri, Columbia, MI, USA
E-mail address:


Prior research has shown that sipping of alcohol begins to emerge during childhood and is potentially etiologically significant for later substance use problems. Using a large, community sample of 9- and 10-year-olds (N = 11,872; 53% female), we examined individual differences in precocious alcohol use in the form of alcohol sipping. We focused explicitly on features that are robust and well-demonstrated correlates of, and antecedents to, alcohol excess and related problems later in the lifespan, including youth- and parent-reported externalizing traits (i.e., impulsivity, behavioral inhibition and activation) and psychopathology. Seventeen percent of the sample reported sipping alcohol outside of a religiously sanctioned activity by age 9 or 10. Several aspects of psychopathology and personality emerged as small but reliable correlates of sipping. Nonreligious sipping was related to youth-reported impulsigenic traits, aspects of behavioral activation, prodromal psychotic-like symptoms, and mood disorder diagnoses, as well as parent-reported externalizing disorder diagnoses. Religious sipping was unexpectedly associated with certain aspects of impulsivity. Together, our findings point to the potential importance of impulsivity and other transdiagnostic indicators of psychopathology (e.g., emotion dysregulation, novelty seeking) in the earliest forms of drinking behavior.

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