The Relationship Between Alcohol Use, Substance Use, and Parenting Style

Scores of peer-reviewed scientific journal studies that examine the relationship between parenting styles and the use of alcohol and drugs are available to the public. The majority of this research focuses on the effect of parenting style on alcohol and drug use among adolescents. In this area of research, scientists identify four primary parenting styles – Authoritarian, Authoritative, Permissive, and Neglectful – and attempt to determine which style has the strongest relationship with adolescent alcohol and drug use. The evidence on that question is clear: authoritarian and neglectful parenting styles are associated with the highest risk of adolescent alcohol and drug use, while the authoritative and permissive parenting styles are associated with a lower risk of alcohol and drug use among adolescents, as compared to the authoritarian and neglectful styles.

Here’s what the authors of the most widely recognized study on the subject say about the relationship between parenting style and adolescent alcohol and drug use:

“Our results support the idea that extremes are not effective: neither authoritarianism nor absence of control and affection. A good relationship with children works well. In this respect, it can go hand in hand with direct control (the authoritative style) or not (the permissive style).”

 These results scan logically to most people who read them. It makes sense that kids raised in an authoritarian environment (my way or the highway) and kids raised in a neglectful environment (no supervision or parental apathy) are more likely to experiment with alcohol or drugs than kids raised in authoritative (firm rules explained with understanding and empathy) or permissive (some rules, but not strictly enforced) environments.

There’s a related angle here that remains relatively unexamined: the relationship between alcohol and drug use among parents and the relationship that use has with their parenting style.

That’s what we’ll discuss in this article.

Alcohol, Drugs, and Parenting Behavior

Here’s the question:

“Is there a relationship between parental alcohol and drug consumption and parenting style?”

This research question is relevant for many reasons, the main one being that mental health experts classify parental substance use as an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). Research shows that children exposed to ACEs are at increased risk of developing a wide range of physical, emotional, and behavioral problems during adolescence and adulthood. Children exposed to ACEs have an increased risk of the following chronic health conditions when they become adults:

  • Coronary disease
  • Obesity
  • Alcohol/Substance Use Disorders

In addition, children exposed to adverse experiences are more likely to:

  • Develop learning disabilities
  • Display behavioral problems
  • Develop cognitive issues
  • Develop mood and/or anxiety disorders
  • Begin sexual activity early
  • Become pregnant during adolescence
  • Initiate domestic or intimate partner violence

There’s another compelling reason this research question needs exploration. Physical abuse, emotional abuse, physical neglect, and emotional neglect – all associated with the extreme parenting styles mentioned above – are considered ACEs. Therefore, it’s important for parents, clinicians, and anyone involved in the life of children and adolescents to understand the various long-term risks associated with the various parenting styles, and how those styles may or may not be related to parental alcohol and drug consumption.

Previously, research that explored the relationship between alcohol/substance use and parenting style focused primarily on the relationship of one substance and one behavior. For instance, papers examined the relationship between parental alcohol consumption and corporal punishment or the relationship between parental marijuana consumption and physical child abuse. Other papers studied the effect of opioid addiction on parental reunification with children after forced separation, while still others examined differences in rates of reunification between alcohol- and opioid-addicted mothers and their children.

None, however, have examined the effect of substance type on parenting style – until recently.

New Study: The Relationship Between Parental Use of Specific Substances and Parental Use of Different Discipline Styles

A study published in 2019 called “Types of Substance Use and Punitive Parenting: A Preliminary Exploration” fills this void in scholarship. Researchers from Ohio State University and the University of Kansas examined data from a telephone survey conducted in 2009. The survey included 3,023 parents from 50 cities with populations between 50,000-500,000. All respondents were over the age of 18 and had one or more child under the age of 12 living with them at least 50% of the time.

The survey asked detailed questions on alcohol use, substance use, and parental disciplinary techniques. With regards to alcohol and substance use, the survey collected data on past-year use and lifetime use. For clarification, those terms mean essentially what they sound like. For the former, a yes means the respondent has used that substance in the past year, while for the latter, a yes means the respondent has used that substance at least once in their lifetime. With regards to parenting, questions focused on disciplinary strategies, and were designed to discover between the use of non-violent, non-physical strategies, corporal punishment, and physical abuse. The question asked about past year use, lifetime use, and frequency of use of those four categories.

What follows is a detailed description of the survey questions, offered to help readers – parents in particular – understand the breadth and depth of the survey, and therefore appreciate the implications of the results and how they apply to parenting choices and practices.

Parenting Style Questions

Nonviolent disciplinary practices

Respondents answered a series of questions designed to gauge the frequency of the following disciplinary techniques:

  • Explaining why something was wrong
  • Putting a child in time out
  • Taking away privileges
  • Redirecting child to desired behavior

Corporal Punishment Scale

Respondents answered a series of questions designed to gauge the frequency of the following corporal disciplinary techniques:

  • Spanking with bare hand
  • Hitting on bottom with a:
    1. Hairbrush
    2. Stick
    3. Belt

Child Physical Abuse

Respondents answered a series of questions designed to gauge the frequency of the following abusive parenting practice:

  • Throwing or knocking a child down
  • Hitting a child with a fist
  • Kicking a child hard

Possible responses to the parenting style questions included:

  • Never
  • 1-5 times
  • 6-10 times
  • More than 10 times

Alcohol and Substance Use Questions

Researchers based this series on questions from the National Survey of Drug Use and Health (NSDUH 2017).

Alcohol Use and Substance Use

Respondents answered a series of questions designed to gauge:

  • Past year alcohol use: whether respondent has consumed alcohol over the past 12 months
  • Lifetime use: whether respondent has ever consumed alcohol.

Alcohol use questions addressed any type of alcohol consumption over the past year or lifetime, including wine, beer, hard liquor, and other types. Drug use questions addressed use consumption of the following substances over the past year or lifetime:

  • Marijuana
  • Methamphetamine
  • Cocaine
  • Crack
  • Heroin
  • Hallucinogens
  • Amphetamine
  • Depressants

Combined Use of Alcohol and Substances

Because 90% of people who used substances were also past-year drinkers, researchers created a series of questions targeted at this specific population:

  1. No use
  2. Non-current drinker, lifetime (but not past year) drug user
  3. Past-year drinker, no drug use
  4. Past year drinker, lifetime (but not past year) drug use
  5. Past year drinker, past year drug use

The Results: Strong Associations Across All Disciplinary Strategies

That subheading gives it away – but before we fill in the blanks, we need to make sure what we mean by strong associations.

Because of its design, the study in question cannot determine causation – it can only determine correlation. Here’s the difference (courtesy of the Australian Bureau of Statistics):

Correlation is a statistical measure that describes the relationship between two or more variables. Positive correlation – also called positive or strong association – between two variables means as one variable increases, the other increases, too. Negative correlation means the opposite: as one variable increases, the other variable decreases, and vice-versa.

Correlation between variables does not mean a change in one variable causes the change in the other variable.

Causation indicates that one variable or event is the result of the other variable or event. This is simple cause and effect. To learn about the criteria that need to be met to determine causation in a scientific experiment, click here.

Now, back to the subject – and those results.

The study found strong and significant associations between past year alcohol and drug use, lifetime alcohol and drug use, and all disciplinary strategies examined, including physical child abuse.

Here are the details:

General Findings: Alcohol, Drugs, and Discipline

  • Parental use of alcohol, marijuana, methamphetamine, and other drugs (category created because only marijuana and methamphetamine met threshold criteria for individual categories) is significantly related to the frequency of nonviolent discipline used by those parents.

Drug and Alcohol Use: Associations with Discipline and Abuse

  • Parental use of marijuana, methamphetamine, and other drugs is significantly related to the frequency of corporal punishment.
  • Parental use of marijuana is significantly related to physical abuse.
  • Combined use of alcohol and marijuana is related to parental use of both nonviolent discipline and corporal punishment.

The Combined Use of Alcohol and Drugs: Association with Discipline and Abuse

  • Combined use of alcohol and methamphetamine is related to parental use of both nonviolent discipline and corporal punishment.
  • The combined use of alcohol and other drugs is related to parental use of both nonviolent discipline and corporal punishment.
  • Combined use of alcohol and marijuana is related to physical abuse.

Other Relevant Findings

  • Compared to parents reporting no history of alcohol use, parents reporting past-year alcohol use were associated with significantly higher annual frequencies of:
  • Nonviolent discipline
  • Corporal punishment
  • Physical abuse
  • Compared to parents reporting no history of marijuana use, parents reporting past-year or lifetime marijuana use were associated with:
  • Higher annual frequencies of nonviolent discipline
  • Higher annual frequencies of corporal punishment
  • Compared with parents with no history of marijuana use or a past year history of marijuana use, lifetime (but not past year) marijuana use is significantly associated with a lower frequency of physical abuse.

That’s a lot of information – and some of it may come as a surprise. For instance, the relationship between marijuana use and physical abuse is not what one may expect. Also, the fact that parents with a lifetime history of marijuana use, but not past year use, were significantly associated with a lower frequency of physical abuse, is confounding.

Key Points

To be clear, we consider all correlative data with proper perspective, for the reasons mentioned above: correlation does not determine causation. From our point of view, the most interesting part of this data is that alcohol and drug use is statistically related to the increased the frequency of use of all types of non-violent discipline by parents, when compared to parents with no alcohol or drug use at all. That includes the practices associated with the parenting styles research shows are most effective: the non-violent Authoritative and Permissive parenting styles.

Also interesting is the relationship between marijuana use and physical abuse: the data shows strong correlations between the combined use of alcohol and drugs with non-violent discipline and corporal punishment, but with regards to physical abuse, researchers only found strong correlations between combined use of alcohol and marijuana and frequency of physical abuse. They also found that parents who reported past-year alcohol use engaged in a higher frequency of physical abuse, compared to parents with no past-year alcohol use.

Takeaways for Parents

Does this mean all parents who drink alcohol and smoke marijuana will physically abuse their children, or that parents who had a drink in the past year will abuse their children?

No.

Again, there is no causation here, only correlation.

However, there is something here we want parents to see and understand: in answering the research question posed at the beginning of this article – “Is there a relationship between parental alcohol and drug consumption and parenting style?” – study authors raise a series of questions that can help parents better understand themselves, their parenting style, their disciplinary practices, and how their parenting style and disciplinary practices may or may not be related to their alcohol and drug use.

For example, parents can start here:

Do I drink or use drugs?

Does my drinking or drug use affect how or how often I discipline my children?

We think these are important questions to ask and answer – with total honesty – and we encourage all parents to do just that.