Relationship Between Alcohol-related Family Adversity, Alcohol Use Across Adolescence, and Mental States Recognition in Young Adulthood

Hubert Suszek, Maciej Kopera, Robert A. Zucker, Marcin Wojnar, Elisa M. Trucco, Andrzej Jakubczyk, Paweł Kobyliński

2020 Journal of Addiction Medicine, T. 14, z. 5, s. e247-e256

Objectives: Although a theoretical link between childhood adversity and mental states recognition has been established, empirical findings are mixed. Some prior work indicates that childhood adversity might enhance, preserve, or reduce mentalization skills in selected at-risk populations. In the current study, we examine whether the presence of risky alcohol use during adolescence moderates the association between childhood alcohol-related family adversity and mental states recognition in young adulthood.
Methods: Secondary data analysis was conducted on 266 young adults who participated in the Michigan Longitudinal Study—a multiwave prospective study on at-risk youth. Children were assessed after initial recruitment (wave 1, target child age range 3–5 years), with assessments repeated every 3 years using parallel measures. The current study focuses on data spanning wave 2 (age range 7–9 years) through wave 6 (target child age range 18–21 years). A family adversity index was derived reflecting exposure to a maladaptive family environment during childhood as assessed at wave 1. An alcohol use risk factor was established reflecting early problem alcohol use during adolescence (target child age range 12–17 years). Mental states recognition was measured with a computerized version of the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Task (RMET) at wave 6. Information about demographics, psychopathological symptoms, and IQ was obtained. The alcohol use risk factor was tested as a potential moderator of the association between childhood family adversity on RMET performance during young adulthood.
Results: Alcohol use risk moderated the relationship between childhood alcohol-related family adversity, and negative and neutral mental states recognition. Specifically, childhood family adversity was positively associated with neutral mental states recognition among participants high in alcohol risk (P = 0.03) and positively associated with negative mental states recognition among participants at average (P = 0.02) and high (P = 0.002) levels of alcohol risk.
Conclusions: Findings indicate that history of childhood adversity may actually improve young adult negative and neutral mental states recognition among those demonstrating high levels of risky alcohol use, as substance use may serve as an external self-regulatory tool. Clinical interventions that target enhancing metacognitive competence and emotion regulation could ultimately help to break the cycle of alcohol-related family adversity.