Why Some Children of Alcoholics Become Alcoholics: Emulation of the Drinker

By Ullman, Albert D.; Orenstein, Alan | Adolescence, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

Why Some Children of Alcoholics Become Alcoholics: Emulation of the Drinker


Ullman, Albert D., Orenstein, Alan, Adolescence


The evidence from twin studies, adoption studies, and other research is that in at least in some cases, there is a genetic basis for alcoholism (for reviews, see Cloninger, 1987; Wilson & Crowe, 1991). However, no researcher claims that genetics can predict alcoholism very well. Most children of alcoholics do not become alcoholic, and most alcoholics do not have alcoholic parents (Fingarette, 1988). This indicates that there is still a need for research on the social-psychological factors involved in the etiology of alcoholism.

This paper reviews current literature in order to stress a factor that has been neglected in accounts of alcoholism: the emulation by children and adolescents of their alcoholic parent.

TYPES OF ALCOHOLIC FAMILIES

Webster, Hamburg, and their colleagues (Webster et al., 1989; Harburg et al., 1990) conducted two surveys, one of parents and one of their adult offspring 17 years later. They found that adult offspring usually display the same pattern of drinking as their parents. However, this was not the case when parents drank heavily, where adult offspring typically drank less than did their parents, a pattern that has been termed "aversive transmission."

This study suggests that most heavy drinking or alcoholic families produces moderate-drinking offspring. At the same time, other research clearly documents that compared to the general population, there is a high rate of alcoholism among the offspring of alcoholic families (Cotton, 1979; Vaillant, 1983). Together, these findings raise questions about the factors in some alcoholic families that protect offspring while in other families, they predispose them to drinking problems.

This issue has been addressed most directly by Steinglass and associates at the George Washington School of Medicine (Steinglass et al., 1987). These researchers distinguish between two types of alcoholic families: one in which the alcoholic is tolerated and/or supported in drinking behavior and one in which this behavior is considered unacceptable and is not allowed to interfere with ongoing family activities. The significance of this distinction is that two sets of data (Wolin, Bennett, Noonan, & Teitelbaum, 1979, 1980; Bennett, Wolen, Reiss, & Teitelbaum, 1987) show that it is the first type of alcoholic family, not the second, that is producing "a significantly greater incidence of intergenerational continuity of the alcoholism" (Bennett et al., 1987).

In families that transmit alcoholism to their offspring, members adjust to the alcoholic's drinking by including the drinker in family activities even when he or she is intoxicated. As an example, Steinglass et al. (1987) describe the vacation arrangements made by the Lawton family; they chose a place that was sure to provide an adequate supply of alcohol for their husband-father, and they sat him, already drunk, in the back seat of the car with a bottle in order to help him make the trip.

While families of this type may make plans to limit the disruption caused by the alcoholic, they are often unsuccessful, and their activities are continually being negatively influenced by the alcoholic's behavior. For example, after one week of vacation, Mr. Lawton had spent so much money on drink, the family was forced to return home. Berlin, Davis, and Orenstein (1988) describe this type of family:

Daily life is often organized around the drinking, all members waiting apprehensively for the next drinking episode to begin, and with children being told what to do or not to do in order to influence or control the drinking. There may also be continuous conflict within the family because the alcoholic parent is too erratic to play a key role in everyday decision making, but refuses to accept a subordinate role. Relationships between siblings may resemble a warring band more than a supportive group because of competition for the scarce supply of adult attention. Finally, the nonalcoholic parent can be so wrapped up in reacting to the whims and needs of the alcoholic that he or she cannot provide a stable environment and is unresponsive to the children's needs. …

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