Health & Wellness Society & Culture

Caregiver alcohol abuse can mean long-term stress on kids

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Research on children in welfare system could help guide practitioners

Children raised by caregivers who struggle with alcohol-use problems are more likely to deal with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress for longer periods of time, according to a new study from the University of Georgia.

A team led by Orion Mowbray from the UGA School of Social Work relied on data compiled by the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Longitudinal Studies of Child Abuse and Neglect. This expansive study followed children who had entered the child welfare system at the age of 8 through the age of 16, checking in at four-year intervals.

Orion Mowbray standing in his office

Orion Mowbray

The study assigned standardized scores from the Trauma Symptom Checklist to the participating children, enabling the team from UGA to take a closer look at how alcohol-use problems in caregivers affect the children in their care. Ideally, this level of focus will help practitioners pinpoint when interventions, like family therapy, might help improve family relationships.

While the research team found that trauma symptoms declined as the participants got older, children who were cared for by an adult dealing with alcohol-use problems faced different challenges.

“Many children come into the child welfare system with high rates of trauma symptoms and many also show improvement over time, but children who had a caregiver with problem drinking don’t show this same pattern,” said Mowbray, the lead author of the study. “By the time children in the child welfare system are 16 years old, those who had a caregiver with problem drinking have significantly higher rates of trauma symptoms than most.”

Screening for symptoms

The Trauma Symptom Checklist allows researchers to screen for a variety of symptoms that are regularly associated with trauma, ranging from headaches and insomnia to difficulties keeping one’s temper in check and uncontrollable crying. Researchers were able to evaluate trauma symptom scores reported by children during these four-year check-ins and track them to see if these trauma indicators changed over time.

The data demonstrated that children with caregivers who didn’t have alcohol-use problems might have had slightly high post-traumatic stress scores at age 8; however, their scores reduced greatly as they got older. The same wasn’t true for those with a caregiver experiencing alcohol-use problems. In fact, that group showed traumatic stress scores that were more elevated over time.

Enhanced stress could be the result of the various structural disadvantages that confront these children. For instance, children with caregivers who have substance-use problems of all types are more likely to enter foster care on multiple occasions and be confronted with other issues, including domestic violence, on top of the daily struggles that come with substance-use problems.

Treatment will take time

“Effective treatment among caregivers for alcohol-use problems or alcohol-use disorders is not something that can be effectively treated in a few sessions, and it often requires a commitment longer than the time a child can be in foster care, which is 12 to 18 months,” Mowbray said. “It requires a lifelong commitment, and it can be full of ups and downs, both recovery and relapse. The lack of effective treatment options for many caregivers with alcohol-use problems may add a significant amount of stress and trauma to these children as they’re growing up.”

There’s a well-established connection between caregiver alcohol-use problems and the mistreatment and abuse of children, but how that dynamic impacts the long-term mental wellness of children in the foster care system is not well known. Mowbray’s research, which was published in the Children and Youth Services Review in September 2020, is a critical first step toward understanding this problem and informing possible interventions.

Joining Mowbray in this study were his colleagues at the UGA School of Social Work — Jennifer Elkins and Mariam Fatehia — as well as Porter Jennings-McGarity from Austin Peay University and Claudette Grinnell-Davis from the University of Oklahoma.

If you or someone you know is experiencing alcohol use problems, help is available through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 1-800-662-HELP,