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How Fighting and Divorce Impact a Child’s Alcohol Use

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Child hiding in corner from parents arguing due to the impact of alcoholWill saw his parents fight…a lot. On the nights when he didn’t see them argue, he could hear them from his bedroom. This went on for a few years, until they eventually got divorced.

Now, Will is all grown up and has a family of his own. He also has a substance use disorder.

Is Will’s alcoholism related to his home-life as a child? Would he struggle with alcohol use if his parents had gotten along better? Did the divorce drive him to drink?

These are the questions researchers have been asking.

Studies indicate that alcohol use disorder is passed down through the generations. In other words, alcoholism runs in families. We know that children of alcoholics are four times more likely than other kids to develop alcohol use disorders.

But what about other family stressors? Are kids more likely to misuse alcohol later in life if they grow up in a household filled with strife? Or if their parents divorce? Does little Will have a chance of a healthy future?

Let’s dig into what researchers found.

Twin Study Reveals Trend

Recently, researchers looked into the lives of 9005 adult twins. They reviewed the presence of alcohol use disorders (AUD), parental divorce, parental AUD, and relationship discord of parents.

Investigators went into the study with the background knowledge that AUD “has a strong familial component.” With this in mind, they wanted to test whether “exposure to parental divorce and relationships discord contributes to the intergenerational transmission of AUD.”

And what did they find?

The results were not surprising. They found that exposure to parental divorce and parental relationship discord (which was often due to a parent’s alcohol use disorder) affected the child’s likelihood of developing an AUD. The results were the same for both male and female children.

In other words, regardless of whether a child is a boy or a girl, “parental divorce and relationship discord contribute to the intergenerational transmission of alcohol use disorder.”


What are the reasons behind this increased risk? Why does fighting and divorce contribute to a child’s alcohol use? Several things are going on.

  • First: The child often experiences a lot of loss when there is discord and divorce in the home. They may experience lost time with each parent, a loss of financial security, loss of emotional security, a loss of religious practice/faith, and reduced physical health.
  • Second: The child learns negative patterns of behavior that are modeled by the parents.
  • Third: These negative experiences often lead to feelings of guilt, anxiety, embarrassment, confusion, anger, or depression.

The child may never learn how to cope with or manage these losses and difficult emotions. Instead, they turn to alcohol use.

Putting It into Practice

Childhood homeSo, how does this study help kids like Will? Researchers point out that the results of this study are consistent with “genetic nurturance” – how a child is nurtured affects their risk of AUD. Parents pass on the risk indirectly through their home environment.

Often, these kids don’t know how to handle the stress at home, and the turmoil comes out in unhealthy ways. They may do poorly in school, withdraw from classmates, act aggressively toward others, or resort to delinquent behavior such as stealing or violence. They may also frequently complain of physical issues, such as stomachaches or headaches. Depression and suicidal behavior are also common.

Knowing this, professionals who provide therapy and substance-related interventions can better serve children. They can watch for these warning signs. They can target interventions for kids who experience divorce or stress at home. These at-risk kids can receive additional support to try to counter their increased risk of developing an alcohol use disorder.

These children and adolescents can benefit from mutual-help groups, educational programs, and individual therapy. These supports can help children process their struggles in healthy ways and understand that their parents’ problems are not their fault. This support can also prevent feelings of isolation.

Treatment can also extend to the entire family. Professionals can help the family learn better ways of relating to each other. These interventions can help minimize trauma to children like Will, and reduce their risk of future addiction.

If you or someone you love is experiencing a substance use disorder, help is available, call 800-948-8417 Question iconCalls are forwarded to these paid advertisers .

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