Lonely in a crowd: The social and emotional consequences of growing up with parental alcoholism

Date of Completion

January 2005


Speech Communication|Sociology, Individual and Family Studies




One of the more serious consequences of growing up with parental alcoholism is learning dysfunctional coping behaviors, which have implications for the quality of one's relationships in adulthood (Fox & Gilbert, 1994). Deficiencies in interpersonal and social relationships increase individuals' risk for becoming chronically lonely. The more pathological consequences of loneliness are to be found among those adults who develop personality and adaptation disorders, such as alcohol abuse, loss of self-esteem, extreme forms of anxiety, powerlessness, and stress (de Jong Gierveld, 1998). Based on the idea that chronic feelings of loneliness may have roots in early childhood experiences, a mediational model of parental alcoholism effects on loneliness among adult children of alcoholics (ACOAs) using Attachment theory (Bowlby, 1969) as the theoretical framework was proposed, tested, and validated in the current study. The model hypothesized that parental drinking would impact family environment, which, in turn, would influence the development of parental attachment security. This was hypothesized to influence emotional expressivity, social support, and loneliness. Emotional expressivity was also hypothesized to partially mediate the effects of parental attachment on social provisions; this, in turn, was hypothesized to mediate the effects of emotional expressivity and partially mediate the effects of parental attachment on loneliness; differences in experiences of loneliness were hypothesized to have implications for life satisfaction. Participants (N = 422) completed retrospective reports of parental alcoholism, family environment, and parental attachment, and current reports of emotional expressivity, social support, loneliness, and life satisfaction. Results offered support for the hypothesized mediational model. Family environment, parental attachment, expressivity, and social support mediated the effects of parental alcoholism on loneliness in adulthood, which, in turn mediated the effects of these variables on life satisfaction. The model explained 15% of the variance in social loneliness, 11% of the variance in emotional loneliness, and 39% of the variance in life satisfaction. The study provided support for the idea that resilience models of ACOA functioning based on individual differences perspectives of parental alcoholism effects offer greater understanding of the ACOA experience than categorical models that emphasize pathology and dysfunction. ^