Substance Use and Parenting: Alcohol’s Role in Behavior

by | Apr 8, 2024 | Academics, Featured, Research and Innovation

Jennifer Price Wolf, associate professor of social work. Photo by Nabor Godoy.

When Jennifer Price Wolf and the team she was working with prepared questions for their first round of research into the relationship between alcohol use and aggressive parenting behavior, they probably didn’t realize the significance of the study’s launch date.

But it was April 2020 when the project began, with its first round of questions sent out three times a day via text message to a group of parents in central Ohio. The questions were gathered into a survey, asking how stressed the parents were and how they’d been behaving with their kids.

Originally, the study was meant to broadly examine how various environmental factors affected parenting behaviors and stress. But then the pandemic happened, and the researchers quickly adjusted. The first wave of surveys came out too early to include COVID-19 questions, but the next two waves did. Wolf, associate professor of social work at San José State’s College of Health and Human Sciences, and her collaborators, including  Bridget Freisthler from the Ohio State University (who was PI for the first two waves of the project and became co-PI with Wolf afterwards), were able to secure grants and funding and pivoted slightly to include the upheaval from COVID-19 and how it affected both parenting and drinking behavior.

Study design

The three waves of the study took place over three years, beginning in April 2020. The second wave took place a year later in spring 2021, and the final survey in spring 2022. Participants took a baseline survey at the beginning of each wave, followed by two weeks of data collection, during which participants answered regular text surveys (three check-ins per day) and installed geotracking apps on their phones so researchers could use their locations to help determine whether specific environments (drinking at home, for example, versus drinking at a bar) were significant factors in parental behavior. Wolf defines aggressive parenting behavior as either corporal punishment that doesn’t leave behind a mark — spanking, slapping with an open hand, or pinching — or psychological aggression like threats and yelling.

Participants were recruited from ads on Facebook, Craigslist and other sites. The study, which took place in central Ohio, skewed white, with a majority of female participants who were more highly-educated (more likely to have a college degree) than the general population, but still reported “fairly high levels of aggressive parenting” overall, Wolf states. 

This population was carefully chosen. “There’s a lot of structural racism involved in who gets referred to and involved with the child welfare system,” Wolf explains. “By putting our studies out into the general population, we’re trying to shine a light on that. These problems are in all communities, and actually white women are one of the highest drinking populations in both frequency and quantity. So it’s not inappropriate to have a sample focused on this community.”

Research findings

Researchers leveraged the data from the three waves for various studies, and plan to continue. Some of their discoveries are only now being published, with more publications to follow. 

Wolf was the first author of one of these published papers, which found that during the pandemic, parents who had high levels of stress and were drinking weekly or monthly  were more likely to use aggressive parenting. As may be expected, researchers also saw an overall spike in stress, aggressive parenting and alcohol use at the beginning of the pandemic, which was eventually reduced in subsequent waves, but researchers still found the numbers “concerning.”

“What we’re finding is that alcohol is like an accelerant,” Wolf says. “It’s kind of the fuse to light the dynamite, but it might be that other things need to be present to cause aggressive parenting. It’s not just the alcohol. It’s alcohol in interaction with stress.”

The location and context of drinking was also an important factor. 

“Our work prior to COVID really showed that often the alcohol use that seemed the most problematic was not actually a parent at home, having a glass of wine,” Wolf states. “It was parents going out to bars, parents drinking with friends and family. Those were the contexts that seemed actually related to abusive, neglectful or problematic parenting behaviors. And so we sort of wonder: Maybe solitary drinking dies down after the pandemic, but as society changes, will those kinds of behaviors pick up again?”

Another study that leveraged this data looked at drinking patterns associated with special occasions, finding that people who drank during the Super Bowl used more aggressive parenting behavior than those who drank on Valentine’s Day. Wolf explains that this is consistent with other studies about violence related to sporting events. 

She hopes that this data will continue to yield more insights for herself and her collaborators. For one thing, as she explains, “We are very interested in prevention and are looking to expand research in this area. There are ideas but not things we have studied yet.”  

Also, throughout her career, Wolf has been driven by her hope that society will one day see substance use as a public health issue.,

“I view substance use not as a problem of the people who are using substances, but as an environmental problem,” she says. “There are things we can do to reduce alcohol use and related problems that shouldn’t just target a few people. If we could view alcohol in that way, instead of focusing on it as an ‘ism’ or a disease, we can help society reduce drunk driving, violence and a lot of other alcohol-related issues.”

Learn more about social work at SJSU.