Maladaptive Parenting, Activity Spaces, Alcohol and the Substance Use Environment

Component Director: Bridget Freisthler, Ph.D.


In 2014, approximately 3.2 million children were referred to Child Protective Services for child maltreatment investigations.  About 20% of these referrals, covering over 700,000 children, were substantiated cases, meaning there was enough evidence to say abuse or neglect occurred.  Nearly 6 out of every 100 children in the U.S. will be placed in foster care at some point in their lifetimes, most often due to child abuse and neglect.  These children too often suffer from lifelong behavioral, mental, and physical problems including substance abuse, anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress, dental infections, and obesity.

Sadly, alcohol use and abuse among the parents and legal guardians of young children are both associated with child physical abuse and neglect.  The environments where parents spend time, such as at work or with friends and family (called activity spaces), and the social contexts of alcohol use, where, when and with whom parents drink, also appear to increase risks for child maltreatment.  If we can identify the situations where parents' drinking and daily activities lead to child abuse and neglect, we can create interventions to prevent these sources of abuse and neglect from occurring. 

Our studies of parents' routine drinking activities:  

  1. Provide individualized information about where parents go regularly in their daily lives, where and with whom they drink, and how interactions with friends and family influence parenting behavior;
  2. Identify daily activities that may lead to child abuse and neglect; and
  3. Help us understand what aspects of the social and physical contexts of drinking can be changed to reduce these problems.

We will use what we learn from this study to:

  1. Develop interventions for the contexts where people drink that may lead to child abuse and neglect, including in bars, at home, or parties;
  2. Reduce opportunities for abuse or neglect when parents are drinking with family or friends; and
  3. Provide guidance on how to adapt current child abuse prevention efforts to reduce maltreatment based on our enhanced understanding of parents' use of activity spaces.

Research Goals and Activities

The goal of our study is to understand how environments where parents spend time, such as at work, at their children's school, or with friends and family may affect alcohol use and parenting behaviors.   We call these “parent activity spaces.”  Determining how parent activity spaces affect how often parents drink in different social and physical contexts, and how drinking in those contexts leads to risks for abusive or neglectful parenting, will help us protect children from maltreatment. 

We have a number of research activities that are helping us meet this goal:

  • We used in-depth face-to-face interviews with parents to find out more about the places that parents go throughout the week and where they spend time when they are not at home.
  • We also used these in-depth interviews to understand when parents use alcohol, who they are with, and where their children are.
  • We used this information to construct “parent activity spaces” like that shown in the figure here.  On the left you see the larger activity space of one higher income mother as she travels around the San Francisco Bay Area.  On the right you see the smaller activity space of a lower income mother that travels more locally. 
  • We took the information from the in-depth interviews and developed questions that we used in telephone and web-based survey interviews with different parents.  These interviews asked parents specific questions about their activity spaces, where they drink and who they drink with, and their parenting behaviors.
  • Based on responses to the survey, we followed up with additional in-depth interviews for a small number of those survey respondents to ask about specific alcohol use behaviors by them or others that caused them to physically harm or neglect their child.
  • We will follow up with parents from the telephone and web-based survey to see how changes in their activity spaces and drinking behaviors impact their parenting.

Discoveries (Findings)

Although the study will not be completed until December 2017, we've already made several surprising discoveries about drinking and parenting. 

Our initial findings suggest that in general, it is not the amount of alcohol that parents drink but how often they drink alcohol, where they live, where they go, and where and with whom they use alcohol that affect risk for child abuse and neglect. 

Where parents live matters:

  • Parents who live closer to more bars use physical abuse and those who live in neighborhoods with more bars and restaurants leave their young children home alone more often

Where parents go matters:

  • Some parents, including those with higher incomes, fathers, and those with more social support in their neighborhood, have larger activity spaces, meaning they may travel to more places or in a larger geographic area from day to day
  • Parent activity spaces are related to parenting, as parents who use corporal or other punitive punishment to discipline their children have smaller activity spaces   

Where parents drink matters:

  • Parents who drink more often at bars, parties, and at home are more likely to physically abuse their children
  • Parents who drink more often at friends' homes are more likely to leave their young child home alone
  • Parents who drink more often at family get-togethers report not watching their child enough, however they are less likely to leave their child home alone

Who parents are with when they drink matters:

  • Parents with more social companionship support (which offers more opportunities to go out, such as to a movie or for a drink) and live near more of the people who provide this support use physical abuse more often

Taken together, these findings suggest that policies or interventions that limit or lower the number of places that sell alcohol and take into account where parents go by focusing on the places where parents drink often may help reduce child physical abuse and neglect.