Teens of Separated Parents More Likely to Drink, Use Marijuana

Parental separation is a term used to describe the dissolution of a family household that includes children, especially minor children still dependent on their parents for material and emotional well-being. Teens and younger children exposed to a household breakup can develop a number of significant, harmful changes in their ongoing mental health. In a study published in September 2013 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, an international research team concluded that the impact of parental separation also significantly increases the chances that teenagers will get involved in the use/abuse of nicotine, alcohol or cannabis.

Parental Separation Basics

In some cases, parental separation involves trial periods during which married parents no longer live in the same household but still remain legally connected through matrimony. In other cases, it involves permanent dissolution of a marriage through divorce proceedings. In still other cases, parental separation occurs between adults who are not married, but nevertheless have children whose households are altered by a trial period of separation or a divorce. Children with temporarily or permanently separated parents commonly live primarily with one parent and spend smaller amounts of time living with the other parent. However, the particular details of these situations may vary greatly from case to case. Divorce affects roughly 1.5 million children in the U.S. each year. No one knows how many additional children are affected by temporary separations.

Parental separation is known for its potential to trigger traumatic stress reactions in both parents and their children. Mental health professionals use this term to describe the mental/psychological responses that occur in the aftermath of extraordinarily stressful situations capable of producing literally life-threatening consequences or consequences that seemingly have life-threatening implications in the minds of affected individuals. Most teens and younger children exposed to parental separation will not go on to experience significantly damaging stress-related reactions to their situation. However, when such responses occur, they can lead to a broad range of harmful outcomes, including symptoms of depression or anxiety, disruptive behavioral patterns at home or in school, poor academic performance, the onset of angry outbursts or acts of aggression, involvement in bullying behaviors, bedwetting or other age-inappropriate behaviors, a reduction in confidence or self-esteem, a reduction in age-appropriate independence, concentration problems or social isolation.

Current Findings

In the study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, a team of Australian and American researchers assessed the impact of parental separation on the risks for cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption and cannabis (marijuana or hashish) use in teenagers. Specific measures of this impact included age at the onset of cigarette smoking and regular cigarette use, age at the onset of alcohol consumption and the first experience of drunkenness, and age at the onset of cannabis use. In addition to examining the effects of parental separation, the researchers examined the effects of genetic inheritance on teens’ substance use patterns. All told, the study involved 1,318 Australian adolescents born to either a maternal or fraternal twin parent. Some of these parents had addictions to alcohol or cannabis, while others did not.

After reviewing their findings, the researchers concluded that, when genetic influences are accounted for, parental separation acts as a clear risk factor for teen involvement in substance use/abuse, especially in children just entering their teenage years. This conclusion held true for cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption and cannabis use in general. It also held true for the early onset of cigarette smoking and habitual cigarette use, as well as the early onset of alcohol intake and consumption of enough alcohol to get intoxicated.

Significance and Considerations

The authors of the study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence also confirmed the fact that genetic influences substantially increase the chances that a teenager will get involved in alcohol use or cannabis use. The specific influences involved differ for each substance, but the overall pattern of risk remains clear. All told, the authors concluded that parental separation within a household acts as an independent risk factor for affected teenagers’ participation in substance use/abuse. This means that the risks associated with parental separation are separate from the risks associated with genetic inheritance, and are also separate from the risks associated with any other environmental factors that can contribute to a teenager’s involvement with nicotine, alcohol, cannabis or any other substance of abuse.

Posted on November 5th, 2013
Posted in Teens

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