Research News

Parents, family relationships influence adolescent substance abuse, UB study finds


Published August 24, 2020

headshot of Jennifer Livingston.
“Parent characteristics and family relationships were important influences on the substance use of children from alcoholic families. ”
Jennifer Livingston, associate professor
School of Nursing

Young children with parents with alcohol problems, those whose parents experience marital aggression and those with fathers who were more aggravated with their children in early childhood were more likely to have substance abuse problems as adolescents, according to a study by researchers in the School of Nursing and the Department of Psychology.

The study, Early Childhood Risk and Protective Factors Predicting Resilience against Adolescent Substance Use, examines the relationship among factors in young children coming from families with and without alcohol problems that led to substance abuse, such as binge drinking and illicit druge use, when the children became adolescents. It was published in Adversity and Resilience Science.

“There was a higher proportion of children from alcoholic families that used substances as adolescents compared with those from non-alcoholic families (64.7% versus 37.5%),” says study co-author Jennifer Livingston, associate professor in the School of Nursing, whose research focuses on how early adverse experiences can contribute to substance abuse and other problems. “However, the risk and protective factors were different based on whether or not the children came from alcoholic families.”

The research team studied New York State birth records from 227 families when their children were 12 months old. Half of the families had at least one parent — usually the father — with an alcohol problem. Livingston and colleagues then followed up with these families when the same children were between 15 and 17 years old.

Lead authors on the study were Rina Das Eiden, senior research scientist in UB’s Department of Psychology, and Stephanie Godleski, assistant professor in the Psychology Department at the Rochester Institute of Technology, who earned her PhD from UB. In addition to Livingston UB co-authors were Craig Colder, professor of psychology, and Megan Casey and Kenneth Leonard from UB’s Clinical and Research Institute on Addictions.

“Parent characteristics and family relationships were important influences on the substance use of children from alcoholic families,” says Livingston.

Adolescents from families with alcohol problems were at risk for substance abuse in cases where their parents experienced marital aggression and their fathers showed they were aggravated with their children in early childhood.

“Families in which at least one parent has an alcohol problem face considerable disruptions in inter-parental and parent-child relationships,” Livingston says. “This discord plays a significant role in putting youth at risk for using substances themselves.”

For adolescents from non-alcoholic families, individual child characteristics were more important factors than parenting and relationship factors in determining adolescent substance use, according to the study.

“Among adolescents from non-alcoholic families,” Livingston says, “those who used substances were less able to control their behavior and regulate their emotions in early childhood compared with those who were not substance users.

“There were no differences in parent characteristics or family relationships for adolescents from the non-alcoholic families.”

Because tensions among family members with alcohol problems increase the risk of adolescents developing substance abuse problems, the study points to the need for interventions aimed at improving family relationships, Livingston explains.

“This could include interventions to improve communication, positive parenting skills and conflict resolution,” she says.

The study suggests a need for future research to examine whether reducing parental alcohol symptoms and enhancing the couple’s relationship when children are in the first three years of life would help to prevent underage drinking and substance use among children; in particular, among children of alcoholic fathers.

The researchers suggest intervention and prevention efforts that may not only emphasize reduction in alcohol problems, but also build more successful co-parenting.

These positive parenting practices may also enhance partner relationships and promote better behavior regulation among the children, the study says.

Teaching parents these new parental strategies that may help promote self-regulation in the toddler-to-preschool years “may examine if there are causal associations with promoting positive outcomes even among children who are at low risk,” researchers say.