Warm mother-child bonds counteract substance misuse risks

12 Sep 2017

Author: Caroline Salom

Families, with their intricacies and interpersonal dynamics, play a complex role in the development of substance use and mental health disorders among young people. Young people experiencing drug and alcohol problems have stories of challenging home lives that impacted the trajectories of these young people. Research into longitudinal data from the Mater-University of Queensland Study of Pregnancy (MUSP) disentangled the many influencing variables and sought positive impacts that parents might have on child mental health and alcohol outcomes.

MUSP recruited a large group of expectant mothers in the early 1980s, and since that time is revealing rich information on the long-term health and wellbeing outcomes of these mothers and their children. Notably, the study participants are representative of the general population, so findings can be readily generalised.

The study has shown that alcohol and mental health problems emerge as "significant" as children reached 21 years of age. More than one-third of study participants had experienced mental health problems, one in four had an alcohol disorder, and one in eight had co-occurring problems. MUSP data revealed that mothers’ and fathers’ drinking during the teenage years, even at moderate levels, appeared to model this behaviour to their children and increased the risk of these children developing drinking problems when they became young adults.

Many factors within the family environment, such as conflict, trauma, socioeconomic disadvantage, and parent alcohol consumption, are well known to have damaging impacts on child development. Somewhat surprisingly, our research showed that the strongest influence on mental health and alcohol use outcomes was warmth of the mother-child bond. Low levels of warmth negatively affected mental health of young adults and increased the development of co-occurring alcohol disorders; while greater warmth was a strong protective factor. Furthermore, this positive link remained strong, even in the face of traumas such as violence between their parents or the children’s own experience of sexual abuse.

Support that fosters warm bonds between mothers and children has the potential to improve children’s long-term mental health and alcohol use outcomes. This finding has the opportunity to inform interventions, programs and policies aimed at addressing family wellbeing, and violence or harmful substance use in the home. 

For more information about this research, contact Dr Caroline Salom.