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(Boston) – In a recent study, researchers at the Boston University School of Social Work (SSW) found that while parental alcoholism can serve as an indicator of long-term harm to children, contrary to common beliefs it is not a direct cause.
The study further confirmed the growing body of evidence that family environment is the most critical factor in understanding the long-term effects of parental alcoholism on the adult lives of their female children. In fact, other childhood experiences, including lack of emotional support, poor family cohesion and communication, and family conflict, collectively explain the variation found in adult adjustment experiences of the adult offspring of alcoholic parents.
This project is an “unusually strong demonstration of these relationships,” said Rudolf Moos, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stanford University, who has been honored by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
The study, recently published in “The American Journal on Addictions,” was conducted by a team consisting of Research Associate Margaret Griffin, Associate Professor and study co-author Maryann Amodeo, Clinical Professor Cassandra Clay, and Research Assistants Irene Fassler and Michael Ellis.
“This research presents a more hopeful picture than is commonly perceived,” said lead author Margaret Griffin, a research assistant professor in BU’s School of Social Work. “The study shows that a positive family environment may be able to overcome very negative childhood experiences.”
The study did determine that women with alcoholic parents had more negative adult social and psychological outcomes than women without alcoholic parents. Those with alcoholic parents more frequently had drinking problems themselves, in addition to higher rates of depressed mood and worse social adjustment and life satisfaction.
However, the researchers found that parental alcoholism alone did not directly contribute to the women’s troubles. Rather, the effect of having alcoholic parents was indirect, due to the increased likelihood of childhood stresses such as sexual abuse, the lack of a confidant, poor family communication, and family conflict and the decreased likelihood of childhood resources including family cohesion and expressiveness. Thus, when other childhood stresses and resources were considered, the researchers found that parental alcoholism was no longer related to adult adjustment. One interpretation of these findings is that, for this sample of women from two-parent families, parental alcoholism by itself is of no direct long-term significance. It is linked to adult problems because it serves as a marker for variation in the childhood stresses and resources examined.
In fact, negative adult outcomes such as alcohol problems, depressed mood and poor social adjustment and life satisfaction could be seen equally in women without alcoholic parents who were exposed to the childhood stresses examined. These childhood stresses and lack of resources, then, were the pivotal influences on negative adult adjustment, regardless of the parent’s status as an alcoholic or nonalcoholic.
The research challenges the belief held by many health professionals and the general public that a parent’s alcoholism is the root cause of psychological and social adjustment problems experienced by their children.
“It is important to remember that study participants lived in two-parent families. That may have offered a measure of stability and nurturing not available in one-parent families,” stated BU’s Amodeo, cautioning that these findings should not be applied too broadly.
These findings are based on a method known as mediation analysis, which is a statistical technique used to understand the complex interdependence of numerous variables—in this case, both positive and negative childhood experiences, including parental alcoholism, and adult adjustment measures. Funded by the Greater Boston Council on Alcoholism and the SSW Alcohol and Drug Institute for Policy, Training and Research, the study examined nearly 300 Greater Boston African-American and white women; approximately half were raised by an alcoholic parent, while the other half did not have an alcoholic parent.
Participants were selected from the community rather than colleges or mental health treatment programs and represented diverse ages, socioeconomic backgrounds, and urban and suburban locations in the Boston area. More than 1,000 women were screened by telephone to ensure that the final group of participants included large enough numbers of African-American women and women with alcoholic parents. Too often, alcohol researchers fail either to include African-American subjects or to report whether results varied by race.
In order to avoid any potential bias that might be introduced, participants were not told of the focus of the research. All study participants filled out an extensive family questionnaire and were interviewed about childhood experiences and current functioning such as social adjustment, life satisfaction, and drinking behavior. In contrast to earlier research on offspring of alcoholic parents, this project examined a broad range of adult outcomes rather than single factors; and measured both positive and negative childhood experiences. The use of siblings to corroborate family information is a unique strength of the study and lends considerable weight to the findings.
One of Boston University’s 17 schools and colleges, the School of Social Work is one of the oldest schools of social work in the country and is known for its research and training in the areas of substance abuse, gerontology, health and mental health, and children and youth, and for the involvement of its faculty in community-based projects. As the fourth-largest independent university in the United States, BU, with an enrollment of more than 30,000 students, offers an exceptional grounding in the liberal arts, a broad range of programs in the arts, sciences, engineering, and professional areas, and state-of the-art facilities for research and teaching.