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Parenting, stress and your child's risk for alcoholism

  • A recent study has found that the absence of a parent as role model can be stressful for infants.
  • Concentrations of cortisol, a principal stress hormone, can indicate levels of stress.
  • Infant monkeys who had high cortisol levels as a stress response later drank heavily as adults.
  • Cortisol may serve as an early biological marker of future alcohol consumption.
  • Adult absence during infancy has long-term psychobiological consequences.
Stress is known to influence drinking behavior. Research indicates that people drink as a way to cope with economic stress, job stress, marital problems, and in the absence of social support. The more severe and chronic the stressor, the greater the alcohol consumption. A study in the May issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research has found a link among the rearing environment (how a child is raised), sensitivity to stress, and subsequent alcohol consumption.

"It's pretty clear that parents are the crucial role models and crucial shapers of their offspring's behavior," said J. Dee Higley, research psychologist at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and lab director of the experiment. "Adults are very good at helping youngsters to understand that 'this is dangerous, this is not dangerous.' In the absence of that kind of adult influence, children don't have any kind of certainty about what to fear or enjoy, what is good or bad. Adults are also very good at cueing into whether their offspring are aroused or anxious, and then helping them to calm themselves down."

Higley's study looked at rhesus monkeys, which share between 90 to 95 percent of their genetic material with humans. These monkeys also have a similar adrenal system which, for the purposes of this study, means that they respond to stress like humans do. In addition, primates have very complex societies; they create social groups, they have rules about social behavior
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Contact: J. Dee Higley, Ph.D.
higleyd@lce.nichd.nih.gov
301-496-9550
Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research
21-May-2000


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