Study shows parental alcoholism creates risk factors for substance abuse in emerging adults

The impacts of parental alcoholism in children are well known, particularly the alcohol consumption habits of children of alcoholics (COA's). However, until now, little research has been conducted on the correlation between parental alcoholism and illicit drug use in emerging adults. A new study by David Flora, PhD of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (now at York University), and Laurie Chassin, PhD of Arizona State University, shows that parental alcoholism represents a risk factor for maladaptive behaviors in adulthood that extend beyond alcoholism and into illicit drug use. The study appears in the current issue of Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, published by the American Psychological Association (APA).

This research identifies parental alcoholism as an important risk factor for escalated use of both alcohol and other drugs during young adulthood. Specifically, parental alcoholism has been associated with both an early onset of drinking and with persistent alcohol abuse throughout adulthood. Currently 1 in 4 children (under the age of 18) grow up in a household affected by alcoholism according to the National Association of Children of Alcoholics. That means 1 in 4 emerging adults and young adults will be faced with an increased risk for alcoholism and illicit drug use, simply because of exposure to an alcoholic parent.

This study followed 545 adolescents over a period of 15 years to monitor their drug use. The researchers were looking for differences in patterns of drug experimentation and drug use into early adulthood between children of alcoholics and children of non-alcoholics.

According to the study findings, COA's maintained consistent levels of drug use, such that by ages 25-30, their level of drug use was substantially higher than that of children of non-alcoholics. The study results indicate that as a consequence of parental alcoholism COA's didn't follow the typical trend by which individuals are expected to "mature out" and decline in drug use before age 30.

In order to test mediational models, the researchers looked at marriage and its effect on declines in drug use. For all participants, both COA's and non-COA's, marriage was associated with lower levels of drug use. However, since COA's were less likely to be married, they were more likely to have continued elevated levels of drug use in young adulthood.


Article: Changes in Drug Use During Young Adulthood: The Effect of Parent Alcoholism and Transition Into Marriage. David Flora, Ph.D., York University; Laurie Chassin, Ph.D., Arizona State University; Psychology of Addiction Behaviors, Vol. 19, No.4.

Full text of the article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office and at

David B. Flora, Ph.D. can be reached by phone at 416-736-2100 ext.23027 or by email at [email protected] Dr. Laurie Chassin can be reached by phone at 480-965 -1616 or by email at [email protected]

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologist. APA's membership includes more than 150,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 53 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations; APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
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