When Preteens Drink and Use Drugs

By Dorri Olds 03/27/17

"Drinking always felt like a medicine because it was the only thing that made me feel better and I figured other people just didn’t know about it."

A troubled preteen girl sits and frowns.
It's not a recent development--kids who see it, try it.

During decades of sobriety, I have consumed myriad articles about teenage substance abuse but information about preteen use seems sparse. Parents may not realize how early kids start experimenting with drugs and alcohol.

The first time I smoked pot was when I was 11. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon was playing as I sat in a circle with older kids from camp. I watched what others did, and when the joint was passed to me, I mimicked what I’d seen. I accepted the joint with my index finger and thumb, put it to my mouth, inhaled, and held it in as long as I could.

My only experience with alcohol up to that age had consisted of sips from Dad’s scotch and sodas or Heinekens. Both tasted terrible, which amused him but I hoped I’d grow to love liquor the way he did. My father wasn’t a drunk. I’d never seen him behave like slapstick characters on TV or in movies, but in grade school I already understood alcohol was important to him.

When he walked in the door after work, my sisters and I were allowed to greet him with a kiss but then we had to leave him alone to “unwind.” Mom, who rarely drank, often mixed his drink beside our elegant wooden bar. Glass decanters filled with brown and white liquids sported metal name tags: Gin, Vodka, Rum, Bourbon.

When I became old enough to bring Dad his evening drink I swelled with pride. The tinkling ice cubes were the soundtrack of my pilgrimages from the bar to the living room. Handing Dad his drink was the big payoff. His face lit up and he winked. It was a thrill that he spoke to me before dinner, even though it was just two words: “Thanks, kid.”

My sisters had similar experiences but never became alcoholics. I grew up with privilege in a loving home. Why then, did my wheels spin out so early? By age 15, I have journal entries that say, “I have to stop drinking.” My drug and alcohol binge came to a long-overdue halt when my cousin rescued me from a blackout and delivered me to rehab. It was there, at age 26, that I began my arduous journey. Now, I’ve been in recovery for nearly three decades.

Seeking answers about early use, I turned to an expert on the child’s brain and behavior. Eleazar Cruz Eusebio, PsyD, associate professor at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, said, “Children under the age of 12 who have [tried] alcohol and drugs have a greater risk of subsequent problems leading to substance abuse and addiction.”

He explained several factors that can contribute to the susceptibility of a child becoming dependent on drugs and/or alcohol: “Research has found biological, behavioral, psychiatric, and psychosocial risk factors that may contribute to young people developing an addiction. Childhood use of alcohol and drugs is often associated with early behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders such as anxiety, and depression. Children identified as impulsive, distractible, and restless at age 3 are twice as likely to be diagnosed with alcohol dependence [by] age 21.”

Next I spoke with adult addicts who, like me, had first experimented with drugs and alcohol at age 12 or younger.


"Alcohol was always there. My father is alcoholic and my mother’s a heavy drinker. I saw them using substances to feel better. My father came home from a hard day and drank until he passed out. So, it seemed natural to me if I had a bad day, to do the same thing. So, I started stealing alcohol around 10. I’d drink it until I passed out so it wasn’t all that practical. [Laughs] In fifth grade we had drug education but I got something very different out of it than my classmates did. The point of it was to educate us so we wouldn’t use but for me it was like school for which drugs I wanted to try. I wanted to try them all.

I tried marijuana after sixth grade. We got it from my friend’s older sister. We went outside in the yard and smoked it. I coughed like crazy. [Laughs] We became completely silly. I’d always been a depressed person but after smoking we were laughing and telling jokes and everything seemed funny. I loved it. I figured if I could be laughing and having fun with marijuana then I wondered what other drugs I could try. I started doing cocaine, LSD, and magic mushrooms a year later.

Drinking always felt like medicine because it was the only thing that made me feel better and I figured other people just didn’t know about it. I knew it was taboo and I knew you weren’t supposed to do it. I tried to overdose a couple times with alcohol and sleeping pills. I went to lots of therapy. I didn’t tell anybody about my drinking until I was 12. When I finally did tell a friend, he was sneaking alcohol too and we were both bringing alcohol to school, then we started sneaking it together.

My son is 7 now. I guess I need to broach the topic soon. I probably will in the next 2 years. I can’t think of anything that would’ve stopped me. Partly because of the environment I was in and partly because of genetics and because I saw it everywhere and it felt as natural as breathing. It also made it very hard to quit. My son gets obsessed with things like I always did. Whether or not that means he’s going to treat substances that way, I’m not sure. He definitely has the genetic loading. There have been a lot of alcoholic deaths in my family. My grandfathers and my great grandfather. My grandfather shot himself."


"My dad was vice president of a big yacht company. We had a nice house and I grew up with this whole boat and booze thing in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. When I was 6 and my parents were still together, I threatened to run away and my dad put a beer bottle in my backpack. We also had a bar in the house that was like a shrine. My dad was a drinker. Mom was a drunk. They were both alcoholics. When I was 12 and my brother was 17, I smoked pot with him. We also drank beers and listened to Lynard Skynard while riding around in his pickup truck. I ended up living with him in eighth grade. He didn’t push anything on me but it was around and I always just knew I could partake, so I did.

When I was really young, I loathed alcohol because of my mom. I found hidden bottles in my closet throughout my childhood. I knew that alcohol was the root of Mom’s problem. My grandparents talked about it and I saw Mom drunk and arrested. Then my parents got divorced so I knew alcohol wasn’t a good thing—it brought chaos into our house. But I wasn’t thinking about that the first time I drank Mad Dog 20/20. I was just sick and tired of being sick and tired of my life. I figured anything would be better than feeling that way, so I drank."


"It started for me with sips of beer that my father gave me when I was 8, 9, 10. He’d be watching baseball on the weekends, the Yankees, and he would just say, “You want some beer?” I would take a big sip and I loved the taste of it. At the age of 11 and 12, I started having beers with older guys in the park—they were 15. My mother’s side of the family were Irish and gave me a glass of wine when I was 10. It had a stronger taste that I didn’t like as much as the beer. They laughed about that and one of them said, “That boy has to learn how to drink.” I did, but unfortunately, I overdid it.

The first time I got really smashed, it made me very popular. I was at the first big dance of the year at a new school. The popular guys wanted some booze so I told them I could get it for them. My father didn’t drink that much, just beer on the weekends and sometimes at dinner, and I never saw him drunk. But there was a lot of liquor around the house. So, I stole a liter of whiskey—Seagrams 7. The guys and I drank it before the dance and it turned out positive because even though I got very drunk, I instantly became popular at the school as the guy who could get booze. It continued that way through my teens and became the social lubricant that let me fit in and feel good."


"When I was 7, the dentist put the nitrous oxide on and told me to tell him when I was dizzy. I lied over and over so I could keep floating higher and higher. When my mother and father came to get me, I floated out like Bugs Bunny in the ether episode. [Laughs] I felt like I was a helium balloon and they were holding onto the string while I floated out of the office. That was my beginning.

When I was 10, my oldest brother, a real pothead, had a pot party. He was 13 years older than me. By the time I was 10, he had already overdosed on LSD. He was never quite right after that. His yearbook quote said, “I see thousands of tiny purple snowflakes.”

At the pot party, he had a green glass bottle—a gallon jug of Gallo wine. He had melted it and turned it into a bong. I tried smoking the pot but I didn’t like it. It made me cough. So, then they put ice in the bong and I smoked it and kept doing it until the tingly feeling in my feet went all the way up my body to the top of my head. Then I felt like I was flying.

My first time with alcohol was when I was 12. I drank 13 beers, threw up, and passed out. That was at a party in Canada at a summer camp. There were always older kids around me. My oldest brother and my other brother were already active alcoholics when I was born. I came right into it. I believe for me it started in utero. If the mother is a drinker of any kind, a potential alcoholic is born."


Still puzzled why some siblings become addicts, while others don’t, I turned to Dr. John Mayer, an expert clinical psychologist who specializes in treating adolescents, teens, and families.

“The cognitive ability of individual perception,” said Dr. Mayer, “means that we all perceive the world and experiences differently. No two people perceive experiences through the same cognition whether it’s parents, peers, the neighborhood, the school. The use of drugs—which is a coping mechanism—may be taken up by one child even though their sibling had no interest.”

Possible Warning Signs of Preteen Substance Abuse

Problems concentrating


Slurred speech

Puffy, red, or watery eyes

Pupils dilated or constricted

Changes in mood

Problems in school


Shady new friends

Low energy

Less interest in activities

Less care in appearance

New clumsiness/lack of coordination

Changes in eating and sleeping patterns

(These signs may also indicate that there is a different problem that needs to be addressed.)

What Can Parents Do?

Dr. Mayer said, “Look at a child’s social media. What’s in their conversations? Kids who get involved in drugs love to chat about it. If you suspect your child is experimenting with drugs, you should have full access to their social media. And I mean all of it.”

He advised, “Get to a professional for an assessment right away, which should include a drug test. It’s critical that the professional is an expert on preteens, drugs, and drinking. The majority of addiction counselors tend to be more adult-oriented and will see addiction through that lens. I suggest a psychologist with knowledge in both addiction and youth.”

You should also have a conversation with your kid and get help for yourself. Other options are outpatient or inpatient treatment at a substance abuse facility.

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.