The Almost Effect

Helping the nearly alcoholic

Family Conflict and Adolescent Alcohol Abuse

Teen girls appear to be particularly at risk

Consider the following statistics: 

  • 15% of 16-year-olds report drinking 5 or more drinks on one occasion on a fairly regular basis. For 18-year-old that figure increases to 22% (Journal of Adolescent Health, 2004, vol. 35).
  • 55% of female students involved in acquaintance rape say they had been drinking or using drugs at the time, and as many as 70% of college-age women admit to having engaged in sex primarily under the influence of alcohol (http://community.pepperdine.edu/counseling center).
  • Heavy alcohol use by teens is predictive of accidents and injuries, academic failure, and drug use (Health Psychology, Vol 22(1), Jan, 2003. pp. 79-87).

In contrast to the above, only 2% to 6% of younger adolescents state that they have consumed that much alcohol at one time (Institute for Social Research, Ann Arbor, MI, 2012).

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What happens to adolescents, and in particular to adolescent girls, that leads to a significant number of them drinking heavily by the time they reach age 16, thereby placing them at risk for the above negative consequences, including sexual victimization? Having some insight into this question could be invaluable to parents and counselors alike as it has the potential to identify at-risk youths and perhaps prevent some of these consequences.

Teen Depression and Drinking: The Role of Family Conflict

A study just published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs (Vol 74, May 2013, pp. 396-405) followed a group of 886 adolescent boys and girls (57% female) from age 12 through age 14. They assessed this group at each of these three ages in an effort to identify what factors might predict heavy drinking at age 14.

 One factor—family conflict—was assessed using statements like these:

  • “We argue about the same things in my family over and over again.” The more strongly a teen endorsed that type of item, the stronger was the estimated family conflict.

 A second factor that was assessed was depression, using a standard measure of adolescent depression.

Finally, all of the teens in the study were asked about how much they drank at each point in time (age 12, 13, and 14).

 Here is what these researchers discovered:

  • Family conflict at age 12 in and of itself does not predict heavy drinking at age 14.
  • What family conflict at age 12 does predict is depression in teens when they reach age 13. This is true for both boys and girls, but the association between family conflict and subsequent depression was much stronger among girls than boys.
  • It is depression at age 13 that predicts heavy drinking at age 14, again especially for girls.

 The story, then (especially for girls) goes something like this:

Severe family conflict at age 12 predicts depression at age 13, which in turn predicts heavy drinking (and all of its associated risks) at age 14.

Why should girls be more susceptible to depression in the face of family conflict than boys? No one knows for sure (yet) but one guess is that teen girls tend to focus more on relationships than teen boys (perhaps including their family relationships) and take more personal responsibility when conflict is high. Also, it is possible that family conflict has equal but different effects on boys. For example, they may become aggressive instead of depressed.

What to Do?

Unlike some research, this study points in some important directions for parents, teachers, and counselors. These include the following. 

  • Divorce

It is generally agreed that divorce (as well as the years that precede it) is often a period of intense family conflict. It would be important to watch for signs of depression in 13 year old girls (loss of energy, social isolation, declining school grades, etc.) as this may be a precursor of future heavy drinking. Depression that is identified and addressed in early adolescents could well prevent other problems later on. 

  • Teen Outreach

The kind of information that is contained in this research should be shared with young teens in formats they can relate to. These might include brief educational presentations to an entire student body, lesson plans in psychology and health courses, and even informational brochures. Teens are capable of completing a brief family conflict test for themselves. If they realize that their own family situation is severe with respect to conflict they might reach out and talk to a counselor. At the very least they could be forewarned that severe family conflict can lead to depression and then to heavy drinking.

Beyond Family Conflict

This important study points to one pathway to alcohol abuse (and its associated risks) for adolescent girls. If family conflict increases these girls’ risk for depression and consequent heavy drinking, might other factors also follow this same pathway? For example, according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, reports that among teens receiving treatment for substance abuse, more than 70% had some history of trauma or abuse (www.NCTSN.org). It is worth considering the possibility that depression—whether its cause is severe family conflict, trauma, or abuse—may be a final common pathway that places teens at risk for alcohol abuse.

Dr. Joe Nowinski’s most recent book is Almost Alcoholic: Is My (or My Loved One’s) Drinking a Problem?

Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D., is the supervising psychologist at the University of Connecticut Health Center.

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