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

Divorced Parents, Drunken Teens


Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson


An elevated divorce rate can only be good news for America’s brewers and distillers, as a study by European researchers shows that when parents divorce, their adolescent children often hit the bottle.

To identify patterns of adolescent alcohol use, a team of researchers from Safarik University (in Slovakia) and the University of Groningen (in the Netherlands) carefully assessed data collected from 3,694 Slovakian students (with an average age of 14.3 years). Beginning with a simple statistical model, the European scholars determined that “divorce . . . had a significant effect: parental divorce increases the probability of drunkenness among adolescents.” However, when they repeated their analysis using more sophisticated models that took into account background variables such as parents’ educational levels, and household income, the researchers found that “the effect of parental divorce [on adolescent drinking] hardly changed.” Even when the researchers included measures of “perceived social support” in a yet more sophisticated statistical model, “the significant effect of parental divorce persisted.”

The Dutch and Slovakian researchers recognize that their findings coincide with those of earlier studies. “Our finding regarding the association of parental divorce with recent drunkenness in adolescents,” they write, “is in line with the findings of several other studies which explored the effect of divorce or family structure on substance use. Adolescents living in broken families are at a higher risk of trying alcohol earlier and drinking more hazardously.”

In explaining the strong linkage between parental divorce and adolescent drinking, the researchers suggest that because parental divorce typically puts adolescents in a single-parent home, “this could lead to a decrease in the control of adolescent behavior, thus opening up more opportunities for risky behavior in general and for experimentation with alcohol in particular. One of the risk factors for early and hazardous alcohol use is undeniably the lack of monitoring of free time activities and peer relationships of adolescents.”

But the researchers also conjecture that adolescents may turn to alcohol as a way of coping with the psychological distress caused by their parents’ divorce. Noting that their study had documented “higher levels of depression/anxiety” among teens who had experienced parental divorce than among peers in intact families, the European scholars reason that “poor [psychological] well-being may be one route for the negative impact of parental divorce on alcohol-related behavior among adolescents.”

Though this study was conducted in Europe, its implications for America are all too evident. Quite unlike the alcohol that divorce-traumatized teens too often imbibe, these implications are sobering.

(Z. Tomcikova et al., “Parental Divorce and Adolescent Drunkenness: Role of Socioeconomic Position, Psychological Well-Being and Social Support,” European Addiction Research 15 [October 2009]: 202–08.)

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