John Brodhead's bio reads like a script for an episode of VH1's Behind the Music. A young rebel from the New Jersey suburbs falls in with a fast crowd, gets hooked on parties and booze and, with intensive counseling and a bit of tough love, manages to get his life back together.

"What makes his story different? Just one thing: his age. John is 13.

Now in recovery, the Babe Ruth League outfielder from Jefferson, N.J., began drinking regularly in sixth grade. "Middle school is like a blur for me," he says. "I consider myself an alcoholic." The younger of two children, Brodhead says he started for all the usual reasons. "My friends told me that all the BMX bikers drank, and I wanted to be a biker," he says. "I thought it was cool." Not only that, Brodhead's mother, Sharon, 44, although she is now sober, admits she was once a heavy drinker herself, a fact that, as a matter of genetics alone, may put John and sister Jen, 19, at higher risk for alcoholism. Says John: "I wanted to get smashed; that was a goal for me."

Although Brodhead's story may seem shocking, his tale of early-onset alcohol abuse is hardly rare. "A lot of kids who come here are pummeling their bodies every Friday and Saturday night," says Kate Smith, a counselor at the Sunrise House rehab center in Lafayette, N.J., where Brodhead went for help. "It's normal for them to have seven or eight drinks every time." Indeed, according to a recent study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, the number of youngsters who start drinking by the eighth grade has risen by nearly a third since 1975, even as alcohol consumption has flattened out among the general population. "We have an epidemic of underage drinking in this country," says CASA president Joseph Califano. "We used to say if you want to prevent drinking by kids, you better target them in high school. The reality is, you better target them in middle school."

Last year in Corvallis, Ore., eight vodka drinks in 25 minutes killed 14-year-old Tamara Wardles. This past February Felisha Holguin, 14, died after drinking vodka at an all-girl slumber party in Albuquerque. (An adult neighbor had provided the booze.) Her blood alcohol count was 0.384—almost five times the legal intoxication threshold for adults. In the Denver suburb of Aurora, a 69-lb. fifth-grade boy nearly perished in March after downing half a bottle of Canadian whiskey. A 13-year-old straight-A student in Wheat Ridge, Colo., was hospitalized in April after drinking tequila she had brought from home in a water bottle.

Although experts have so far had little success at identifying what drives so many kids to drink, they agree about the hazards. Children who start drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to become adult alcoholics than those who begin at 21. Statistically, young drinkers are far more likely to drop out of school, engage in underage sex or commit suicide than their sober peers. School officials are concerned that a new breed of sugary drinks—hard lemonade and alcohol-spiked gelatin cups—are particularly appealing to younger teens as palatable shortcuts to a buzz. Such products lend themselves to binge drinking, defined as downing five or more drinks in one session. "When you're talking about sixth graders with developing bodies, drinking that much is a substantial problem," says Colorado Department of Human Services researcher Bruce Mendelson. Alcohol appears to stunt the growth of parts of the brain, researchers say, and impairs social development and academic progress.

Until recently, experts believed that young boys were more likely to drink than girls. Not now. Among ninth graders, about 40 percent of both girls and boys say they drink, according to the CASA study. By 16, Christina Thur, who began drinking regularly as a sophomore at Chesapeake High School in Pasadena, Md., had totaled her family's van while drunk and had had her stomach pumped three times in alcohol-related incidents. "It was always about a guy and being rejected," says Christina, now 17. "If I didn't have a boyfriend I would be depressed, or if he didn't call me I would be depressed. I would drink over anything that made me cry."

Those comments are typical, says Carol Beauchamp-Hunter, director of treatment at Excelsior Youth Center, a residential facility for girls with behavioral problems in Aurora, Colo. "I think for girls a lot of the drinking is more for internal reasons—self-esteem, confidence. Maybe it makes them feel stronger," she says. One of the center's residents, Jamilia Smith, 14, who started sneaking peppermint schnapps from the family refrigerator when she was 9, says she felt belittled by her stepfather and was trying to numb the pain. "I wanted him to know that I wasn't afraid of him," says Jamilia, who has completed a 12-month course of treatment at Excelsior and returned to live with her mom and biological father, who now plan to remarry, in Sacramento.

For 14-year-old Lorraine Tibbetts, also a resident at Excelsior, drinking seems to be the only way she and her family in Minneapolis can break down barriers that otherwise keep them apart. "I like my sister better when she's drinking," says Tibbetts's twin, Louanne, who is in a group home for troubled teens, "because she talks about her feelings more." In fact, Lorraine doesn't consider her drinking out of control—a depressingly common belief among teen addicts, say the experts. "At that age, kids can be very arrogant and have no regard for danger," says Steve Lazar, a counselor at New Jersey's Sunrise House. "They always think addiction will never happen to them."

Yet it does, with increasing regularity. As with adults, one of the first steps is to convince a teen that she or he has a problem—and not just because a school principal or parent tells them so. "I have them look at their lives a year ago and show them how much trouble they've gotten into since they started using," says Lazar. "I plant a seed in their mind so they start to realize the consequences." Once sober, teens will face a minefield of temptation, in hard-partying colleges and beyond. Parents can offer crucial help by monitoring their child's activities and simply locking up the liquor cabinet, but they just as often communicate that it takes a few drinks to relax or that you can't socialize without booze in hand, according to CASA's vice president and director of research policy and analysis, Susan Foster. "Parents really need to take a hard look at their own behavior," she says.

With all of the other demands on parents, often it takes a crisis to focus their attention. Sharon Brodhead says she never knew her son had a problem until John, then 12, was suspended for 45 days after bringing marijuana to his middle school. "We bought his lies hook, line and sinker because he was so young," says Sharon. In the end, the school's intervention may have been just in time. "Every time I would drink, I would drink to the point where I couldn't think," says John. "Then I thought, 'What am I doing? I could have killed myself like that.' I have walked in the middle of the street drunk. I never got hit by a car, but stuff like that is what gets you killed."

Mortified that he had been caught with pot in his pocket, Brodhead confessed to his parents that he had been drinking with pals in his bedroom and on sleep-overs at friends' houses. Just days after his 13th birthday, he began 28 days of outpatient treatment at Sunrise House. Jack and Sharon Brodhead still ask themselves how they missed the now-obvious signs of their son's dangerous habit. Now doing their best to sharpen their awareness, they eat dinner together whenever they can, and John sometimes sleeps on a couch near his parents' bedroom. His own room, once a parental no-fly zone, is no longer off-limits to regular inspections. "I look at this as a blessing in disguise," says Jack Brodhead of John's brush with the law. "We managed to save our son."

Patrick Rogers
Joanne Fowler in Jefferson, Vickie Bane in Denver, Margaret Nelson in Edina and Inez Russell in Albuquerque

  • Contributors:
  • Joanne Fowler,
  • Vickie Bane,
  • Margaret Nelson,
  • Inez Russell.