Parental Divorce and Initiation of Alcohol Use in Early Adolescence

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Parental divorce/separation is among the most commonly endorsed adverse childhood events. It has been shown to increase subsequent risk of alcohol dependence and problems across adolescence and early adulthood, but its influence on early stages of alcohol involvement has only recently been explored. In the present study, we examined whether time to first full drink was accelerated among youth who experienced parental divorce/separation. To determine specificity of risk, models controlled for perceived stress as well as family history of alcoholism, current parental drinking, and internalizing and externalizing problems. Developmental specificity in terms of timing of both parental divorce and first drink was also examined. Participants were 931 middle-school students (488 girls, 443 boys) who were enrolled in a prospective study on drinking initiation and progression (52% female; 23% non-White, 11% Hispanic). Students indicated whether and at what age they had consumed a full drink of alcohol. Parental divorce/separation was coded from a parent-reported life-events inventory and was grouped based on age experienced (ages 0–5, ages 6–9, age 10+). Cox proportional hazard models showed increased risk for onset of drinking as a function of divorce/separation, even controlling for stress, parental alcohol involvement, and psychopathology. There was no evidence for developmental specificity of the divorce/separation effect based on when it occurred nor in timing of first drink. However, the effect of parental divorce/separation on initiation was magnified at higher levels of parental drinking. Given the rates of parental divorce/separation and its association with increased risk of early drinking, investigation of the mechanisms underlying this link is clearly warranted.

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