Children Pick Up Drinking Habits From Mom, Study Finds

Posted on May 5th, 2013

The intergenerational aspects of alcohol abuse are well-established and well-known. Being born into a family that has a history of problem drinking will predispose a child to having  troubles with alcohol when he or she reaches maturity, and the relationship is especially strong for children of parents who are alcoholics or binge drinkers.

But much to the surprise of addiction experts, a recent report has revealed a gender-related aspect to problem drinking that was not previously known to exist. The British think tank Demos carried out a long-term study of the behavior and attitudes of alcohol consumers over a 34-year period, and the data they collected uncovered a relationship between binge drinking in adults and the drinking habits of their mothers—not both parents, but mothers alone.

Breaking Down the Demos Study

Between 1970 and 2004, the alcohol consumption patterns of 18,000 residents of the United Kingdom were surveyed periodically in order to see how they evolved over time, and to learn more about the social contexts in which they developed. At age 16, it was discovered—to no one’s surprise—that the drinking behavior of peers had a much larger influence on study participants than the drinking practices of parents. But once those adolescents reached maturity, the picture changed dramatically. At that point, it was possible to establish a clear connection between levels of alcohol consumption—most specifically those related to incidences of binge drinking—and childhood memories of the drinking behavior of mothers.

For reasons that are unclear, no relationship was found between a father’s proclivities with alcohol and the drinking habits of grown children. But in the case of mothers, the direct linkage between what participants in the study experienced in childhood and how they used alcohol when reaching adulthood was statistically significant.

Each study subject was asked to rate the alcohol consumption of both parents on a four-point scale; in response to the question ‘how often did your mother or father drink when you were a child?’ the four possible responses were never, sometimes, often, or always. With fathers, the rates of binge drinking behavior did not vary based on a participant’s response to this query. However, with mothers there was a 30 percent increase in the risk for binge drinking as the scale was ascended—those whose moms sometimes drank when they were kids were 30 percent more likely to be binge drinkers when grown than those whose moms had never drank; those who answered ‘often’ to the drinking question were 30 percent more likely to binge drink than study participants in the ‘sometimes’ category; and those in the ‘always’ group were 30 percent more likely to binge drink than those who claimed their mom’s had drunk alcohol often during their formative years. Interestingly, there were no differences based on the gender of the study subject: adult men and women faced the same elevated risk for binge consumption based on the behavior they observed in their mothers when they were young.

It is important to acknowledge that study participants were basing their answers about their mothers’ drinking habits on their memories, which may have become somewhat skewed with the passage of time. It is hard to believe this would explain the researchers’ findings away, however, since a false memory syndrome about past parental drinking in the home would likely have implicated both moms and dads. As for the lack of connection between a father’s remembered drinking habits and adult alcohol consumption patterns, it has been suggested that this might be because men have traditionally done much of their drinking in adult-oriented social settings while women have been more inclined to imbibe in the privacy of their own homes, where children would presumably be exposed to such behavior more frequently. But this is all speculative, and it is certainly conceivable that there is something about the mother-child relationship that is so fundamental that a mom’s actions can have more of an impact than a dad’s, at least in some instances.

Exposing the Parental Factor

While the Demos project was quite lengthy and exhaustive, more follow-up studies will be needed to verify its results; and since all of that study’s subjects were British, there may be some doubt about its cross-cultural and cross-national applicability. Also, the link discovered in the Demos project was only between childhood exposure to alcohol and binge drinking, which is a predictive factor for alcoholism but does not always co-occur with actual alcohol addiction. Therefore, further inquiry will be required before researchers will be able to know for sure if the mother-child connection holds not just for binge drinking but for alcoholism as well.

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