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Children of Alcoholics Choose Alcohol Abusers as Partners

Adult children of alcoholics are people who grew up in a household with at least one parent affected by alcoholism. A significant minority of all U.S. adults come from such a background. In a study published in January 2014 in the journal Addictive Behaviors, a team of American researchers assessed the chances that young adult women from families affected by alcoholism will develop their own problems with alcohol. In addition, the researchers compared these risks to the risks for alcohol-related problems in young adult women who did not grow up in alcoholism-affected households.

Adult Children of Alcoholics

When children raised by relatives other than their parents are taken into consideration, about 20 percent of U.S. adults come from households marked by alcoholism. Kids who grow up in such an environment have increased risks for experiencing a range of emotions that reduce their overall sense of well-being, including confusion over the unpredictable nature of their alcoholic parents’ behavior, embarrassment regarding their situation or their parents’ behaviors, depression, anxiety, fear and anger. Children of alcoholics also frequently experience a reduced ability to place trust in other people or achieve interpersonal closeness.

Over time, teenagers and young adults raised in alcoholism-affected families drink more often than their peers not raised in such families. In addition, a well-regarded body of scientific evidence has connected growing up in an alcoholism-affected family with starting alcohol consumption relatively early in life, progressing unusually quickly from moderate alcohol use to excessive alcohol use and experiencing relatively severe consequences from alcohol intake. Current evidence also indicates that adult children of alcoholics become alcoholics themselves two to four times more often than adults from families unaffected by alcoholism.

Tracking Alcohol-Related Harm

In the study published in Addictive Behaviors, researchers from Old Dominion University and the Virginia Consortium Program in Clinical Psychology used an examination of 197 college-enrolled women between the ages of 18 and 25 to assess the impact that being raised by an alcoholic parent or relative has on the rate of alcohol-related harm in early adulthood. All of the participating women were alcohol consumers involved in some form of intimate relationship. Sixty of these participants were adult children of alcoholics, while the remaining 137 participants came from families not directly affected by alcoholism. Through questionnaires and other testing procedures, all of the women submitted information regarding their experiences with alcohol-related problems, as well as information regarding their partners’ experiences with alcohol-related problems, their underlying motivations for consuming alcohol and their experiences with symptoms of depression.

When they completed their analysis of the submitted information, the researchers came to the surprising conclusion that the young women in the study who were adult children of alcoholics did not experience alcohol-related problems at a higher rate than their peers who were not children of alcoholics. However, they also concluded that the young women who were adult children of alcoholics did have a substantially higher chance of entering into intimate relationships with partners affected by serious alcohol-related problems. Young women affected by a relatively large number of depression symptoms also shared in this risk. In addition, the researchers concluded that two factors—having a relatively large number of depression symptoms and having a relatively strong motivation to use drinking as a coping mechanism—increase the risks for alcohol-related problems when they appear in any young woman, regardless of her family history of alcoholism.

Significance and Considerations

The authors of the study published in Addictive Behaviors did not expect to find that young adult women from alcoholism-affected families don’t have a higher rate for alcohol-related problems than their peers not raised in alcoholism-affected families. This conclusion runs counter to most previous research on the subject, which clearly points to increased risks for drinking problems in children raised by alcoholic parents. The authors believe that the combined effects of depression, getting involved with partners affected by drinking problems and using alcohol consumption as a coping mechanism may help explain why they came up with such unanticipated results. They also point toward a need for further investigation of the impact of these additional factors, as well as a need to explore other possible explanations that have not yet been considered. Based on their findings, the authors believe that future researchers may need to start looking for more individualized, unique risk factors for alcohol-related problems in any given person.

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