Developmental pathways to underage drinking emerge before the second decade of life. Many scientists, however, as well as the general public, continue to focus on proximal influences surrounding the initiation of drinking in adolescence, such as social, behavioral, and genetic variables related to availability and ease of acquisition of the drug, social reinforcement for its use, and individual differences in drug responses. In the past 20 years, a considerable body of evidence has accumulated on the early (often much earlier than the time of the first drink) predictors and pathways of youthful alcohol use and abuse. These early developmental influences involve numerous risk, vulnerability, promotive, and protective processes. Some of these factors are not related directly to alcohol use, whereas others involve learning and expectancies about later drug use that are shaped by social experience. The salience of these factors (identifiable in early childhood) for understanding the course and development of adult alcohol and other drug use disorders is evident from the large and growing body of findings on their ability to predict adult clinical outcomes. This review summarizes the evidence on early pathways toward and away from underage drinking, with a particular focus on the risk and protective factors and the mediators and moderators of risk for underage drinking that become evident during the preschool and early school years. It is guided by a developmental perspective on the aggregation of risk and protection and examines the contributions of biological, psychological, and social processes within the context of normal development. Implications of this evidence for policy, intervention, and future research are discussed.

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