Study finds link between mothers' substance abuse and their style of child discipline

March 01, 2000

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Mothers who have alcohol and drug problems tend to be more punitive toward their children than women who do not have substance-abuse problems, according to a study conducted by two University at Buffalo School of Social Work faculty members.

While a number of studies have looked at the negative effects on children's lives of parents with alcohol or other drug problems, this is one of the few studies that directly examines the relationship between a mother's substance abuse and her style of child discipline.

"When we looked at mothers' style of punishment, women with alcohol and other drug problems were more likely to be punitive," said Brenda A. Miller, Ph.D., professor of social work and director of the Center for Research on Urban Social Work Practice, who conducted the study with Nancy J. Smyth, Ph.D., associate dean for academic affairs in the School of Social Work. Pamela Mudar, project staff associate at the Research Institute on Addictions, also was a co-author.

Results of the study were published recently in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol. The research was supported by a $1.4 million grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

"There is a lot of talk about children of alcoholic parents, but most of it focuses on a father's problem," said Miller. "There are fewer women in treatment than men, in general, but women generally have custody of their children," suggesting that more attention needs to be given to children whose mothers have alcohol or other substance-abuse problems.

The study interviewed 170 women from Western New York recruited from five different sources: alcoholism outpatient-treatment programs, drinking-driver classes for convicted offenders, shelters for battered women, outpatient mental-health treatment programs and a random sample of households. All these women had children between 3 and 17 years of age.

Participants were divided into three categories: those who had a past alcohol or drug-abuse problem, those with a current problem and those who never have had a problem.

Participants were interviewed using a structured format that included open-ended questions and self-administered questionnaires. Mothers were asked about their style of punishment, including verbal aggression, such as threats or beratings, and moderate physical punishment, such as throwing something at the child or slapping or spanking. The study did not assess any physical punishment that could be categorized as child abuse.

Women in the study also were asked about how they would react in hypothetical situations. Mothers were presented with various disciplinary strategies -- ranging from doing nothing, to talking to the child, to hitting the child with a belt or a switch -- for 10 different situations in which the child misbehaved. Child misbehaviors ranged from not doing something he or she was to do, to stealing something, to hitting or kicking the mother or a teacher or babysitter.

The study showed that mothers with past or current substance-abuse problems were likely to discipline their children more aggressively than women who had never had a problem, and that current substance-abuse problems were linked more strongly with physical punitiveness.

Although an obvious goal of the study would be to provide interventions that would teach mothers how to punish their children more effectively and appropriately, the end goals of the study are more wide-reaching because substance-abuse problems and styles of discipline "have a way of setting up replicating patterns," Miller said.

"When we talk about prevention, this is one other place where we can make a difference," she said.

Mothers' substance-abuse problems tend to be intertwined with other problems, including the women's histories of child abuse, sexual abuse and partner violence. There is evidence that these victimization histories may contribute to their alcohol- and drug-abuse problems, which, in turn, contribute to the style of punishment they use with their children. And since substance abuse is linked to victimization and violence, it is critical that the interacting chain of events be interrupted.

"There are many different points where we can start pulling this chain apart," she said. "There is not just one right place to make a difference; there are many places to make a difference."

Miller said that while current methods of treatment for substance abuse focus only on the abuser, she hopes results of her study will encourage broader forms of intervention.

"We're providing direct care of the person with the alcohol problem, not the whole family. I hope this work will help with the recognition that what we do with family members will have a direct affect on the problems of the future.

University at Buffalo

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