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Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Unhappy Hour: Underage Drinking after a Parental Divorce

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Given the dangers it creates for young people’s well-being, for civic order, and for public safety, it is quite appropriate that many nations have outlawed underage drinking. Why is it, then, that since the 1970s, these same nations have generally licensed parental divorce sought for any reason or for no reason? There is a profound incoherence here, which becomes impossible to ignore in light of the findings of a study recently completed by researchers at the Norwegian Institute for Alcohol and Drug Research (NIADR) and Brown University. Highlighting a strong connection between parental divorce and underage drinking, this study raises serious questions about the sobriety of those writing divorce laws.

To assess the impact of parental divorce on early initiation into the use of alcohol, the NIADR and Brown researchers parsed data collected for 931 students enrolled in middle school (6th, 7th, and 8th grades). A clear linkage between parental divorce and the initiation of alcohol use emerges in these data: in the researchers’ simplest, unadjusted treatment of the data, “youth who experienced [parental] divorce/separation were at significantly greater risk of initiation [of alcohol use] than those who did not” (Hazard Ratio of 1.65).

When the researchers reassessed their data in a statistical model that adjusted for sex, age, and socioeconomic status, this association remained significant (Hazard Ratio of 1.55). In fact, the linkage between parental divorce or separation and children’s initiation of alcohol use remained significant even in a statistical model that further adjusted for psychopathology, perceived stress, family history of drinking problems, and current parent drinking (Hazard Ratio of 1.45).    

In further analyzing the linkage between parental divorce and young adolescents’ drinking, the researchers discerned no evidence whatever that this troubling linkage occurs only if adolescents experience their parents’ divorce during a “‘window of vulnerability’ during early childhood.” On the contrary, the researchers uncover evidence that “experiencing divorce/separation at all ages was significantly associated with elevated risk of drinking initiation.” Indeed, the researchers are emphatic: “[R]egardless of when experienced, parental divorce/separation seems to be a critical life event associated with increased risk of early alcohol use.”

Having unambiguously identified the connection between parental divorce and young adolescents’ drinking, the authors of the new study seek to explain that linkage. They plausibly conjecture that “a reduction in child supervision and parental involvement may follow [parental] divorce.” They further reason that “parental absence in turn may lead to a decrease in parenting effectiveness and increased access to alcohol.” In the same vein, the researchers suggest that “poor parental monitoring may lead to greater affiliation with substance-using peers, as youth turn to peers to have emotional needs met.”

The authors of this study acknowledge the relevance of previous research indicating that worse may lie ahead for these premature imbibers. Such research has established that “youth who experience parental divorce/separation show elevated alcohol involvement into adulthood, including heavy drinking and alcohol-related problems as well as (lifetime) alcohol abuse and dependence.”

The authors of the new study see a need for “future work exploring the mechanisms underlying the association between divorce/separation and adolescent drinking.” But the more acute need would seem to be future work exploring ways to shield more young adolescents from the trauma of parental divorce.

(Kristina M. Jackson, Michelle L. Rogers, and Carolyn E. Sartor, “Parental Divorce and Initiation of Alcohol Use in Early Adolescence,” Psychology of Addictive Behaviors 30.4 [2016]: 450-61.)