The impact of alcohol use disorders on family life: A review of the empirical literature

Image: NDARC technical report cover
Author: Delyse Hutchinson, Richard Mattick, Danya Braunstein, Elizabeth Maloney, Judy Wilson

Resource Type: Technical Reports

NDARC Technical Report no. 325 (2014)
 
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
 
This report aimed to review the empirical literature on the impact of parental alcohol use disorders on family life. The report focused specifically on harms inflicted by the problematic consumption of alcohol on members of the family, particularly spouses and children, and on the functioning of the family unit as a whole. The key objectives of this report were to (a) improve understanding of the nature and extent of the impacts, (b) provide specific directions for future research, and (c) identify salient factors to be incorporated in national health policies, and prevention and treatment initiatives that aim to reduce the burden of alcohol use disorders in Australia.
 
It is important to note that the review is not all-inclusive. The impacts that were considered most important and the ones for which there was considerable empirical support were selected for review. The review relied on cross-sectional studies when more rigorous longitudinal studies were not available. Much of the research has been conducted internationally; however, where available, findings from large-scale cohort studies in Australia and New Zealand have been included to improve understanding of the links between parental alcohol use problems and family functioning within the local context. The report also overviewed the available research on the impact of alcohol within Indigenous communities in Australia.
 
The review demonstrated that there is a large body of research showing significant associations between parental alcohol use disorders and a range of problems in family life and functioning. These problems include, but are not limited to, parent and family conflict and violence, parental separation and divorce, parent mental health and other substance use problems, economic problems, disrupted parenting, parent-child relationship problems and a range of mental health and cognitive disturbances in offspring. This review has shown that these problems often co-occur in families affected by parental drinking problems, particularly in families where both parents abuse or depend on alcohol. As most studies in the literature reviewed have been cross-sectional, problems in family life cannot be attributed solely to alcohol use. Rather, it is likely that these factors interact in complex and dynamic ways, as well as with other macro- and local environmental factors, to determine the specific impacts for each family.
 
The literature used in this review highlighted a number of conclusions:
  1. The extent of harmful drinking patterns and alcohol use disorders among Australian parents is significant.
  2. Alcohol abuse is common among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and has frequently been linked to family violence.
  3. Parental alcohol use disorders are associated with a range of problems in family life.
  4. Consideration of a developmental perspective is important in planning future policy and practice.
  5. Treatment and intervention efforts should address the multiple risks experienced by families affected by parental drinking problems.
  6. Prenatal exposure to alcohol increases the risk for a range of physical, cognitive and mental health problems in children, including Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorders. The question of whether there is a safe level of drinking during pregnancy remains to be established.
  7. The early introduction of alcohol to children and young people by parents may increase the risk for future drinking problems.
  8. The protective factors within families that minimise the negative impact of parental alcohol use problems should be promoted.
  9. More Australian research, especially longitudinal research, is needed to promote understanding of the processes and developmental pathways via which parental alcohol use impacts on family life.