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What Triggers Harsh Parenting Among Alcoholic Moms?

Alcohol dependence among mothers is a significant predictor of harsh parenting over time, according to a new study published in the journal Development and Psychopathology.

Children of parents with substance use disorders are more likely to develop behavioral problems, antisocial behaviors, aggression, mood disorders, anxiety, and later use substances themselves. But research has left a lot of questions unanswered.

For example, even though parents with substance use disorders are more likely to treat their children harshly, they don’t do so all the time. What are the triggers? In addition, how can substance-dependent mothers and their medical care providers better predict when problems are going to occur?

The new study by a team of psychologists from the University of Rochester and the University of Minnesota makes considerable progress towards answering both questions.

Harsh parenting can include nonverbal communication, such as angry or contemptuous facial expressions and menacing or threatening body postures; emotional expression, such as irritability, lack of patience and sensitivity, sarcastic comments, and curt answers; or rejection, such as actively ignoring the child, showing contempt or disgust for the child or the child’s behavior, or denying the child’s needs.

The team focused on a sample of 201 mothers with alcohol dependence — primarily low-income, ethnic minority — and their two-year olds. Research has shown that the effects of alcohol are exaggerated among women, reducing stress tolerance and interfering with many of the complex cognitive processes needed for sensitive and supportive parenting.

The researchers followed the mother-child pairs for more than a one-year period, observing behaviors during nine separate visits to a research laboratory. Mothers and their children were observed in two contexts: during free play and during a cleanup task. The mother-child interactions were rated on a nine-point scale measuring the degree of harshness.

The researchers also collected observations about the child’s temperament through another set of experiments, and assessed the mother’s alcohol dependence with the help of a widely-used diagnostic interview schedule.

The study revealed the following:

  • Alcohol-dependent mothers acted more harshly when disciplining, but not when playing with their children.
  • Alcohol-dependent mothers used harsher discipline when their child was highly frustrated, but not when their child was sad or fearful.
  • A child’s temperament played a direct role in how mothers reacted: when children expressed intense negative emotions such as defiance and anger, or aggressive traits, mothers were more likely to react harshly.
  • A mother’s alcohol dependence is a significant predictor of harsh parenting over time  well above other parenting risk factors, such as mental disorders, the mother’s age, and family income. Specifically, harsh parenting among non-alcohol-dependent mothers decreased by 36 percent over the one-year study period; however, among alcohol-dependent mothers harsh parenting increased by about 9 percent during that same time.
  • Mothers with greater psychological-behavioral difficulties stemming from alcohol impairment — who also have children with higher levels of negative emotions, behaviors, and characteristics — showed higher levels of harsh parenting over time. Mothers with alcohol-related impairments were approximately 66 percent more likely to become harsher over time compared to mothers without alcohol-related impairments.

Alcohol dependence “may disrupt the cognitive-emotional processes that regulate a parent’s response to a child who is behaving in a challenging or difficult manner. That’s why it can be difficult for alcohol-dependent mothers to respond to angry and demanding children with noncoercive strategies,” said Rochester psychology professor Dr. Melissa Sturge-Apple.

Lead author Debrielle Jacques, a Rochester doctoral student in psychology, points out that during the cleanup task, the mother was faced with the primary goal to get the child to listen; but often children didn’t listen and instead responded in their own temperamental ways.

“Now, she also has to combat the way the child is responding to he, posing an additional demand. For moms who have a lot of alcohol-related impairments, we know that they find parenting stressful anyway, which makes this a kind of triple stresser,” Jacques said.

The team hopes their study will shed light on the unique parenting challenges faced by black and Hispanic mothers who suffer from alcohol-related issues, “a particularly vulnerable group that has been missing from the research spotlight,” said Jacques.

According to Jacques these women often come to motherhood with higher levels of underlying trauma. “These women might have experienced, even from an earlier age, higher rates of sexual abuse, emotional, or physical abuse — trauma that we may not see at these rates in white women.”

Source: University of Rochester


What Triggers Harsh Parenting Among Alcoholic Moms?

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. (2019). What Triggers Harsh Parenting Among Alcoholic Moms?. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 25, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 20 Nov 2019 (Originally: 20 Nov 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 20 Nov 2019
Published on Psych All rights reserved.