Joint Consequences of Parental Alcoholism and Childhood Sexual Abuse, and Their Partial Mediation by Family Environment

Article excerpt

This study investigated the effects of childhood sexual abuse and parental alcoholism in a sample of university women. Current symptoms of anxiety and depression were measured together with retrospective reports of subjects' families of origin. Using a 2 X 2 factorial design, main effects on symptoms were obtained for sexual abuse and parental alcoholism, but their interaction was not significant. With respect to family environment, a history of sexual abuse was associated with perceptions that families of origin had less cohesion, more conflict, less emphasis on moral-religious matters, less emphasis on achievement, and less of an orientation towards intellectual, cultural, and recreational pursuits. Similarly, subjects who had alcoholic parents reported less family cohesion, more conflict, and less emphasis on moral-religious matters. Results of analyses of covariance suggested that family environment was a mediator of current symptoms of anxiety, but not symptoms of depression.

Two forms of childhood stressor that have been widely studied, especially recently, are sexual abuse (Brown & Finkelhor, 1986; Kluft, 1990) and parental alcoholism (Russell, Henderson & Blume, 1985; West & Prinz, 1987). In the case of childhood sexual abuse, a wide range of long-term effects has been demonstrated to extend into adulthood, including depression, anxiety, and increased suicide risk (Bagley & Ramsay, 1986; Briere &Runtz, 1988; Brown & Anderson, 1991; Sedney & Brooks, 1984). A history of childhood sexual abuse has been shown to increase the likelihood of dissociative phenomenon (Briere & Runtz, 1988; Chu & Dill, 1990), and to be a risk factor for Somatoform Disorders (Loewenstein, 1990; Morrison, 1990), and Borderline Personality Disorder (Ogata et al., 1990; Stone, 1990). In addition, several authors have documented the effects of childhood sexual abuse on sexual functioning, observing that adults victimized as children have poorer sexual adjustment and a higher incidence of sexual dysfunction (Herman, 1981; Meiselman, 1978; Tharinger, 1990).

Parental alcoholism has also been shown to be associated with a wide range of consequences. Although the data do not allow for the separation of genetic and environmental causes, there are many reports that children of alcoholics (COAs) are at increased risk for a variety of problems, both in childhood, and as adults. Children with alcoholic parents have been shown to be more likely to be hyperactive (Knop, et al., 1985), to experience conduct problems (Herjanic et al., 1977), to suffer from poor self-esteem (O'Gorman, 1975), to show symptoms of anxiety and depression (Herjanic etal., 1977; Moos & Billings, 1982), and to have somatic complaints (Bennett, Wolin, & Reiss, 1988; Rydelius, 1981). There have been relatively few empirical studies that have investigated psychopathology in adult COAs. Berkowitz and Perkins (1988) reported that adult COAs showed higher levels of self-deprecation, Benson and Heller (1987) found COAs to be more neurotic and to have higher scores on the MMPI-PD scale, and Clair and Genest (1987) reported more depression proneness. Tweed and Ryff (1991) employed a community sample and found increased levels of anxiety and depression. Two studies found COAs to perform differently than controls on standard personality inventories. Smith, Ribordy, and Marinakis (1984) reported elevations on several of the subscales of the SCL-90, indicating a broad range of symptoms including depression, anxiety, somatization, obsessive-compulsive traits, and hostility. Similarly, Knowles and Schroeder (1990) found COAs had small but significant elevations on all of the clinical scales of the MMPI compared to controls.

Children of alcoholics and victims of childhood sexual abuse may be alike in one important way-both conditions typically occur within maladaptive family environments. For example, it has been shown that the families of incest victims display multiple problems, including parental mental illness and violence (Anderson & Shafer, 1979; Browning & Boatman, 1977; Herman & Hirschman, 1981), and that members of these families show maladaptive patterns of interaction (Madonna, Van Scoyk, & Jones, 1991). …