A new study tells us more about what presses the trigger when it comes to harsh parenting by alcohol-dependent mothers. The study, carried out by two teams of psychologists in the USA, was published in the journal Development and Psychopathology and helps understand why it happens and how it can be prevented – two important goals in protecting the children of such mothers.
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Poor mother-child relationships with alcohol dependence
It’s pretty well known that mothers on alcohol or other substances of abuse have difficulty parenting their children with gentleness and wisdom. It’s equally well-known that the children of such mothers don’t have good relationships with their parents in most cases.
These children are also automatically at risk for behavioral issues, antisocial behavior, aggressive and violent attitudes and behavior, mood disorders, and anxiety, as well as using drugs or other substances of abuse themselves.
Alcohol dependency is a widespread global phenomenon and equally widespread in its impact on how children develop physically, emotionally, socially, and intellectually. It is estimated that one in 8 American children live with parents who abuse substances, and in particular, more and more women of childbearing age are struggling with alcoholism.
This is of great concern because science is showing that women are especially sensitive to the cognitive and emotional effects of alcohol, which induces stress at a lower threshold, and prevents normal thinking and judgment, hindering good parenting.
Even though all this is a given, there are some open questions. First, why do parents with substance abuse disorders not parent badly all the time? What triggers harsh parenting? And secondly, how can they and their doctors predict when they will encounter difficulties that make it hard to parent properly?
A collaboration between psychologists at the University of Rochester and the University of Minnesota set themselves to finding out the answers to these questions. They looked at how alcohol-dependent mothers and their children interacted in two different types of situation while playing and during clean-up. Each separate interaction by the mother was rated on a scale of 1 to 9 for harshness.
The mother’s level of alcohol dependency was evaluated by a standardized diagnostic interview tool, while the child’s personality was also classified using a separate experimental setup.
Most of the mother-children pairs came from ethnic minority groups who were relatively poor. There were 201 pairs of alcoholic mothers with their 2-year old children, followed over a period of one year. They visited the laboratory nine times over this period, for observation.
To understand what the study was focused on, the term harsh parenting needs a definition.
In this context, it was taken to denote nonverbal cues like angry expressions, showing contempt, or body language indicating threat; emotional expressions of irritability, impatience, or insensitivity, sarcasm, short gruff answers; and active rejection such as showing a contemptuous or disgusted reaction to the child or the behaviour of the child, or refusing to acknowledge the child’s needs.
The researchers found that alcohol-dependent mothers reacted harshly when they were engaged in disciplining their child, and especially when that child was showing extreme frustration. However, they were much better parents at play and when disciplining a sad or fearful child.
They also discovered that the child’s temperament dictated the mother’s reactions in most cases, with negative traits like dislike, aggressiveness, anger, or defiance, drawing forth harsh parenting.
Alcohol dependence was key in predicting whether harsh parenting would occur over time, much more so than any other parental risk factors. No other characteristic came near it in importance, whether the mother’s mental disorder status, age, or income of the family.
In fact, mothers who were not alcoholics showed an almost 40% drop in harsh parenting over the study period of one year. Conversely, harsh parenting increased by 9% in alcoholic mothers over this duration.
Finally, the greater the abnormality in the mother’s mental makeup and behavior, due to alcohol-induced disruption of normal thinking and attitudes, the harsher the parenting became as time passed. The children of such parents reflected similarly higher levels of negativity, bad behavior, and undesirable traits.
Overall, they found that if a mother was an alcoholic, she was 66% more likely to show harsher parenting with time compared to non-alcoholic mothers.
The take-home message is simple: alcoholic mothers find it more difficult to handle difficult or challenging behavior by their child than non-alcoholics because they are experiencing impaired cognition and emotional processes.
Cognition involves attention, perception, memory, language, learning, and sound reasoning. It depends on being able to pay sustained attention, processing information quickly and well, paying attention to more than one thing simultaneously, recognizing patterns, and thinking logically.
Alcohol impairs cognitive processes as well as disrupting normal emotional reactions. Researcher Melissa Sturge-Apple says that alcohol dependence may make it “difficult for alcohol-dependent mothers to respond to angry and demanding children with noncoercive strategies.”
For instance, lead author Debrielle Jacques says, the mother is trying to get the child to listen to her during the clean-up assignment. When the child’s temperament causes a challenging or angry reaction, the mother now faces one more demand – that of changing the child’s response.
Add to this the intrinsic stress of parenting, which most alcoholic mothers feel, and the situation puts three different kinds of demands on the mother, which she is even less able to deal with because of alcohol-induced impairment.
Jacques hopes the study will help to focus attention on black and Hispanic mothers with alcohol dependency, who she describes as “particularly vulnerable” and “missing from the research spotlight.”
“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.”
Debrielle Jacques, lead author
As a result, they are already struggling with their past, perhaps seeking help with alcohol, and stressing out over parenting – with its necessary corollary of dealing with negative emotions and reactions in children. The study will help identify which aspects of caregiving need to be targeted for these mothers, to help them care for their children as better parents.
Rochester.edu. (2019). When do alcohol-dependent mothers parent harshly? https://www.rochester.edu/newscenter/when-do-alcohol-dependent-mothers-parent-harshly-399722/