Observing mothers’ negative experiences with drink may normalize alcohol risks for adolescent children

Adolescents’ expectations of drinking – whether they anticipate having positive or negative experiences with alcohol – are an important influence on their drinking behavior. For example, those with stronger ‘positive expectancies’ are more likely to start drinking at a young age and to have problems with alcohol. Parental drinking can be an important factor in shaping alcohol expectancies in early adolescence, before a young person starts using alcohol. Studies indicate that children of parents with high levels of alcohol use, and/or an alcohol use disorder (AUD), tend to have stronger positive expectancies of alcohol. However, some evidence suggests that observing the undesirable effects of their parents’ high-risk drinking could lead to ‘negative expectancies’, although this link is uncertain. Researchers from Arizona State University have conducted a new study, published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, assessing whether the observable negative effects of alcohol use by parents with AUD affect the alcohol expectancies of their adolescent children.

The study used data from 581 adolescents who had provided information on their alcohol expectancies at two timepoints, the first at an average age of 12, and the second 1.5 years later. The strength of positive expectancies was calculated from the extent to which they agreed with 18 positive consequences of drinking, such as ‘I would have more fun at a party’; for negative expectancies, participants stated their level of agreement with 20 negative consequences, such as ‘I would lose my temper more rapidly’. Their parents, most of whom had a diagnosed AUD, reported on the negative (and potentially observable) effects of drinking that they had personally experienced within the last year, such as ‘I drink and drove’.

As anticipated, an AUD diagnosis among mothers was linked to stronger positive alcohol expectancies, and weaker negative expectancies, among their children. In relation to past-year observable consequences, the researchers expected to find that the children of parents who reported a high number of negative effects would have stronger negative (and weaker positive) expectancies at each time-point. However, they found that for mothers, observable consequences were associated with weaker negative expectancies in their adolescent children at the first (but not second) timepoint, with no link with positive expectancies. No association was found with paternal AUD or paternal observable consequences at either timepoint.

One interpretation is that observing undesirable consequences of mothers’ drinking may not paint alcohol in a unfavorable light, but rather normalize its negative effects. Consistent with this, there is evidence that talking about negative drink-related experiences with one’s children may encourage them to drink, rather than being a deterrent. Discussing or (as here) observing the consequences of mothers’ alcohol use may provide a medium through which children develop permissive attitudes about alcohol and its effects. The researchers speculate that paternal drinking and consequences may be more common and socially accepted, perhaps making them less remarkable or noteworthy to adolescents.

The Effects of Observable Parent Alcohol Consequences and Parent Alcohol Disorder on Adolescent Alcohol Expectancies. J.T. Waddell, A.J. Blake, A. Sternberg, A. Ruof, L. Chassin (pages xxx).


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