Connecting Childhood Abuse, Alcohol Dependency, and Gender

Childhood maltreatment has long been proven as a risk factor for numerous negative outcomes, including aggression, depression, anxiety, fear, attachment issues, psychosis, posttraumatic stress, and substance use. Alcohol dependency has been linked to various forms of childhood maltreatment and is especially high in those with a family history of alcohol dependency. But few studies have sought to examine how family history of alcohol use increases risk of dependency when combined with individual types of maltreatment. Even fewer studies have explored each form of childhood maltreatment with respect to gender to ascertain the effect on risk of alcohol dependency.

In an effort to accomplish this, M.C. Fenton of the Mailman School of Public Health and the Department of Epidemiology at Columbia University in New York, recently examined interviews from over 27,000 adult participants who took part in a national survey. The interviews asked about forms of childhood maltreatment, family history of alcohol dependency and individual alcohol use.

The results revealed a link between physical abuse and alcohol dependency, especially in those with a family history of alcohol abuse.  Childhood emotional abuse was a significant risk factor for alcohol dependency in women, and particularly relevant in those with a family history of alcohol use. Also, women with genetic vulnerability to alcohol dependency were at extremely high risk of alcohol abuse if they had experienced childhood sexual abuse.

These findings untangle the relationship between childhood maltreatment and alcohol dependency, showing that different forms of abuse and maltreatment work in different ways to affect later dependency and that gender also plays a role in this relationship. Fenton also looked at other forms of childhood adversity and maltreatment and did not find any direct effect on alcohol dependency, regardless of whether there was a family history of alcohol use or not. “In summary,” added Fenton, “Sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, and physical neglect independently increased the risk of alcohol dependence, underscoring the importance of early identification and prevention.”

Fenton, M. C., et al. (2013). Combined Role of Childhood Maltreatment, Family History, and Gender in the Risk for Alcohol Dependence. Psychological Medicine 43.5 (2013): 1045-57. ProQuest. Web.

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  • Lee


    June 4th, 2013 at 3:42 AM

    FUNNy how we all know these things, and still for some families there is nothing, not even information like this, that can break that cycle of alcohol abuse in families. We know sometimes that the choices that we are making are wrong, but we keep doinf=g it because this is what feels good to us. We fail to look at what the ramifications will be for our children or what they might be in our own lives. It is all about the gratification that we are constantly seeking.

  • R Finn

    R Finn

    June 4th, 2013 at 8:40 AM

    why exactly alcohol?is it seen as an escape route away from the trauma and pain?because there sure are scores of people who swear by alcohol to help them wade through problems and pains,but we all know what too much alcohol leads to!is the understanding of these people,for lack of better words,messed up?!

  • Samantha


    June 5th, 2013 at 4:04 AM

    I come from a family of abusers and drinkers I am sorry to say.

    And it would have been very easy to get sucked into this cycle of bahvior mself if I had not made a conscious effort to move away once I graduated from high school. It was hard but truly the best thing that I have ever done for ME. Would it be easy to fall into the trap all over again now that I have a family of my own? I would say so because you have to remember that this is the only example that I have ever had for what a family looks like. I am fortunate that the family I married into looks nothing like that at all and they have been wonderful for me and for my kids. I would one day like to have contact with my own family again but right now I still feel like I am a little too vulnerable to let them back into my life.

  • alison parnell

    alison parnell

    June 5th, 2013 at 11:42 AM

    abuse in childhood – be it in any form – can be so very dangerous.

    the fact that it also makes one vulnerable to unhealthy things is pure tragedy.

    its like the abuse makes the person weaker for a long long time in all aspects.

    and all that while many times the perpetrator walks away just fine :(

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