The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Summer
2015

Separated Parents, Substance-Abusing Progeny




Public-health officials report that America is now paying hundreds of billions of dollars to deal with problems caused by alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs. That alarming financial burden may grow even greater in the decades ahead. Why? Because an increasing number of American children grow up without both parents, and in a recent study assessing the impact of parental separation on substance abuse, researchers adduce clear evidence that use of alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs spikes among adolescents when their parents separate.

Conducted by scholars at Yale, Washington, and Indiana Universities in the United States and King’s College in England, the new study analyzes data on substance use during early adolescence among 4,163 female twins born between 1975 and 1985 in the state of Missouri. The researchers focus on substance use among young adolescents first because such use is already disturbingly prevalent in the United States and second because such early-adolescent use portends malign life trajectories.

The researchers cite recent investigations finding that a third (33%) of American 8th-graders have used alcohol, almost one-fifth (19%) have used cigarettes, and almost one-sixth (16%) have used marijuana. By indulging in the use of these substances, the researchers warn, these young adolescents expose themselves to “immediate risks of harm, such as unintentional accidents, sexual risk-taking, and other victimization.” What is more, early use of alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana predicts “initiation and escalation in use of harder substances.” And early use of alcohol and illegal drugs has been shown to be “strongly predictive of alcohol and other drug use disorders.” Given this sobering pattern, the researchers consider it necessary to identify “risk factors” for early-adolescent substance use so that health authorities can devise strategies for “targeted substance abuse prevention.”

Careful parsing of the data highlights two particularly salient risk factors for early-adolescent substance use: 1) having alcoholic parents, and 2) having separated parents. These two risk factors stand out clearly in the data for adolescents of “European or other Ancestry (EA).” They do not stand out for adolescents with African ancestry. However, the data for African American adolescents—who accounted for only about one-seventh of the sample—were so sketchy and inconsistent that the researchers express “little confidence in comparisons” made on the basis of those data.

Unsurprisingly, among young adolescents of European and other ancestry, the perfect storm of substance abuse occurs when such youth have alcoholic parents who are separated. The international team of scholars who wrote this study reports that “E[uropean and other] A[ncestry] twins from alcoholic separated families were at highest risk of early alcohol, tobacco, cannabis [marijuana] and other illicit substance involvement, compared to twins from nonalcoholic intact families.” The combination of parental alcoholism and parental separation indeed raised the risk of substance use dramatically. The researchers calculate that among young adolescents in the study whose parents were both alcoholic and separated, the likelihood of their ever having been intoxicated with alcohol by the age of 10 ran a phenomenal 33 times higher than among peers whose parents were neither alcoholic nor separated. When the researchers raised the threshold age from 10 to 14, adolescents with parents who were alcoholic and separated were still three and a  half times more likely to have been intoxicated with alcohol than peers whose parents were neither alcoholic nor separated. 

Similar patterns prevailed when the researchers shifted their focus to tobacco use. Young adolescents with parents who were both alcoholic and separated were almost 11 times more likely to smoke regularly by age 10 than were those with parents who were neither. Re-setting the threshold age at 14, the researchers calculate that young adolescents with parents who were alcoholic and separated were four and a half times more likely to smoke regularly than peers with parents who were neither.

The likelihood that a young adolescent will use marijuana is similarly dependent on family circumstances. The researchers report that young adolescents whose parents are both alcoholic and separated are almost six times as likely to use marijuana by age 14 than peers whose parents are neither.

Predictably, living with alcoholic parents increases the likelihood of substance abuse even when those parents are not separated. However, the researchers find that the elevation of risk is only “moderate” in such cases. Young adolescents whose parents are alcoholic but still together are only about half again more likely to have been intoxicated with alcohol than peers whose parents are neither alcoholic nor separated (Hazard Ratio of 1.44). Young adolescents whose parents were alcoholic but still together were less than three times more likely to smoke regularly by age 14 than peers whose parents were neither alcoholic nor separated (Hazard Ratio of 2.64). And adolescents with parents who were alcoholic but still together were slightly more than two times more likely to use marijuana by age 14 than peers whose parents were neither alcoholic nor separated.

That young adolescents with alcoholic parents are especially vulnerable to substance abuse seems only natural, even if living in an intact family substantially mitigates that vulnerability. But distinctively high vulnerability shows up among young adolescents whose parents are not alcoholic but are separated. “Effects of parental separation absent of parental alcoholism were . . . observed,” report the researchers, noting that these effects are notable “particularly for smoking and use of cannabis or other illicit drugs.”

Taking as their comparative standard young adolescents with nonalcoholic parents who were in intact marriages, the researchers calculate that young adolescents in their study from nonalcoholic families in which the parents were separated were “at nearly three times increased likelihood of smoking before age 11, and nearly two times increased likelihood over ages 11-14.” Using the same standard of comparison, the researchers find that young adolescents with nonalcoholic but separated parents manifested “over two times increased likelihood of regular smoking and cannabis [marijuana] use” through age 14. The researchers limn the same pattern for use of other illicit drugs, concluding that young adolescents with nonalcoholic but separated parents were almost four times more likely to use such drugs by age 15 and almost two times more likely to use these substances from that age onward than were peers whose nonalcoholic parents were in an intact marriage.

The researchers stress that even in the absence of parental alcoholism, the effects of parental separation on young adolescents’ substance abuse persist—albeit with “somewhat attenuated” strength—in statistical models that take into account “family background, offspring pathology, and childhood risk-factors.”

In short, the researchers find that—except among African Americans—“parental separation predicts early substance involvement that is not explained by parental alcoholism nor associated family background characteristics.”

Surely, researchers who declare that they seek “targeted substance abuse prevention” can see that such prevention should start with finding ways to keep parents not only sober but also sober together. 

(Mary Waldron et al., “Risks for Early Substance Involvement Associated with Parental Alcoholism and Parental Separation in an Adolescent Female Cohort,” Drug and Alcohol Dependence 138[2014]: 130-6.) 

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