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Personality-based approach can reduce teen drinking

A new paper published this week in JAMA Psychiatry draws exciting conclusions at the intersection of two fields dear to me: pediatrics and personality science. The paper reports on the success of a personality-based program to reduce teen drinking. In a nutshell, an alcohol-prevention program tailored to teens with high-risk personality traits shows promise for preventing drinking among the young people who might be most prone to drink.

More on that in a minute, but first, a quick anecdote about why I care about personality research: Back when I was in graduate school, my roommate would sometimes do a web search for cheap, last-minute airline tickets, then jet off on almost no notice to some exotic locale. Once, when she neglected to tell her mom that she was going out of the country, I answered our phone to hear her very worried mother say "Erin, do you know where Gina is?" My reply: "Uh, Venezuela?"

If you asked Gina, then a psychology PhD student who was studying personality, about the motivation for these adventures, she sometimes jokingly replied in the jargon of her academic field, pointing out that she scores highly on "openness to new experiences," one of the standard dimensions by which personality is assessed.

A brief program of cognitive behavioral therapy reduced high-risk teens' total drinking by 29 percent and binge drinking by 43 percent

Now Gina and I are grown-ups with real jobs. I write about pediatrics at Stanford, while my old friend, known in her professional life as Angelina Sutin, PhD, is an assistant professor at Florida State University, where she is continuing her personality research. When I saw the new paper, I jumped at the chance to call Dr. Sutin, as I guess I'd better refer to her, to get her thoughts on this work that's relevant to both of our professional lives.

The teen-drinking researchers, who are from Canada, the U.K. and Australia,  screened young teens for four personality traits that could predispose them to high-risk behaviors, and then provided prevention programs targeted to the specific high-risk traits. Instead of simply being told, "Don't drink," high-risk teens received a brief program of cognitive behavioral therapy to help them recognize healthy and risky coping behaviors that could arise from emotional responses specific to their personalities. Substance abuse was mentioned as one of several risky coping behaviors, but was not the main focus of the program.

This approach reduced high-risk teens' total drinking by 29 percent and binge drinking by 43 percent. Schools where high-risk students received the intervention also had less total drinking than control schools, suggesting that low-risk students drank less if they saw less drinking among their peers.

When we talked, in addition to being enthusiastic about the personality-based program's effects, Sutin commended the fact that the results were not specific to alcohol.

"It's really nice that they showed an effect from dealing with problems related to personality, rather than the outcome you're trying to change," she said. "I wonder if it would transfer to other risky behaviors. It's really exciting; we don't typically see this sort of thing."

Targeting specific personality traits was important, Sutin added, because each high-risk personality trait could lead someone along a different route to alcohol use. "By addressing those routes rather than the end behavior, you get more effective interventions," she said.

And the take-away message for parents or educators?

"Part of parenting is teaching your child how to effectively cope with the world," Sutin said. "That means helping them understand the consequences of their actions and think through how they can respond to make better decisions in the future. Usually we don't think about it in terms of these kinds of internal processes, but maybe we should."

Previously: Are some teens’ brains pre-wired for drug and alcohol experimentation?CDC binge-drinking study demonstrates cell phones’ value in research and National survey shows teen girls more vulnerable to drug and alcohol abuse

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