The relationship between experiencing trauma and increased alcohol consumption has been well established. Exposure to childhood trauma has been linked to both early onset of drinking and problematic substance use. However, the mechanisms underlying this relationship remain unclear. The results of early work suggested that drinking to relieve negative affect (i.e., drinking to cope) was driving this connection. However, the findings of more recent work suggest that drinking might be used to enhance positive affect as a way of addressing the aftereffects of early trauma. The current study looked at these two drinking expectancies as indirect pathways between the experience in early childhood of living in a home with parental violence and peak alcohol use in emerging adulthood.
Participants were 1,064 children and their parents involved in a longitudinal community study of children at high risk for the development of alcoholism and a community contrast group of those at lower risk. Baseline assessment was at age 3-5 years, self-reports of internalizing behavior and drinking expectancies were obtained at age 12-14, and drinking measures were assessed at age 18-20.
Results indicated that coping expectancy was a mediator of the relationship between early childhood trauma and later peak alcohol use, whereas enhancement expectancy was not.
Children living in homes with parental violence were more likely to develop ineffective coping strategies, such as using alcohol to decrease negative affect. These results support the self-medication theory. They also demonstrate the long-term effects of early life experience on drinking behavior in early adulthood.