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Child Abuse or Witnessing Parental Violence Tied to Later Substance Abuse

Child Abuse or Witnessing Parental Violence Tied to Later Substance Abuse

Children who are the victims of sexual and/or physical abuse or who witness chronic parental violence are far more at risk of becoming substance abusers as adults, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Toronto.

“We found that both direct (physical and sexual abuse) and indirect (witnessing parental domestic violence) forms of childhood victimization are associated with substance abuse,” said lead author, Professor Esme Fuller-Thomson, Sandra Rotman Endowed Chair at the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work and Institute for Life Course & Aging.

The findings show that one in five drug-dependent adults and one in six alcohol-dependent adults experienced childhood sexual abuse, compared to one in 19 in the general Canadian population. One in seven adults with drug or alcohol dependence had been exposed to chronic parental domestic violence, compared to one in 25 in the general population.

According to the study, parental violence was considered “chronic” if it occurred 11 or more times before the child turned 16.

“We were surprised that chronic parental domestic violence exposure remained significantly associated with both drug and alcohol dependence, even when we adjusted for childhood maltreatment, depression and most of the known risk factors for substance dependency,” said Fuller-Thomson.

“In fact, the odds of alcohol dependency among those who witnessed their parents’ chronic domestic violence were about 50 percent higher than those without that exposure, and these odds were similar in magnitude to that of childhood sexual abuse.”

More research is needed to understand the pathways through which witnessing chronic parental violence and childhood maltreatment may increase the prevalence of drug and alcohol dependence across the life course.

Fuller-Thomson suggests that “the chronic chaotic and violent home environment may have predisposed individuals to turn to alcohol or drugs as a way of coping.”

For the study, researchers analyzed data from a representative sample of 21,544 adult Canadians drawn from the 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey-Mental Health components. At some point in their lifetime, 628 of these respondents had been dependent upon drugs and 849 had been dependent upon alcohol.

“Our findings underline the importance of preventing childhood abuse and domestic violence. In addition, social workers and other health professionals must continue to support survivors of these childhood adversities across the lifespan, with particular attention to substance abuse and dependence issues, added co-author Jessica Roane.

Other significant predictors of both alcohol and drug dependence include lower levels of education, poverty, being male, being single as opposed to married, and a history of depression and/or anxiety disorders.

The findings are published online  in the journal Substance Use and Misuse.

Source: University of Toronto


Child Abuse or Witnessing Parental Violence Tied to Later Substance Abuse

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2018). Child Abuse or Witnessing Parental Violence Tied to Later Substance Abuse. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 28 Jun 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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