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The Dark Side of Social Support: How Social Companionship, Drinking, and Alcohol Outlets Affect Child Abuse

Parents who have more social companionship may actually be more likely to abuse their children, a recent study shows. The study was carried out by the Prevention Research Center of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, in conjunction with the University of California, Los Angeles and Case Western Reserve University.

Previous studies have found that social support, primarily measured as tangible resources such as money or babysitting, can reduce child maltreatment. However, parents may receive many different types of support. One of these types of support, social companionship, includes spending time with friends or family members doing leisure activities such as going to lunch or the movies. When leisurely activities include consuming alcohol, support in the form of social companionship may actually prove detrimental for parents at risk for committing physical abuse. While some forms of social support may be protective against child maltreatment, less desirable consequences of social support exist. For example, negative consequences of social support may be group conformity, where individuals feel pressured to adapt similar behaviors as their social network. If parents or their social group are inclined to abuse alcohol, social connectedness may increase opportunities for binge drinking.

The purpose of the current study was to examine how parental drinking behavior, drinking locations, alcohol outlet density, and types of social support may place children at greater risk for physical abuse. Data on use of physical abuse, drinking behaviors, types of social support, social networks, and demographic information were collected via telephone interviews with 3,023 parent respondents in 50 mid-sized cities in California. Having a higher percentage of social companionship support network living within the neighborhood was related to more frequent physical abuse. This relationship was even stronger in neighborhoods that had a high density of on-premise alcohol outlets, that is bars and restaurants that serve alcohol. With regards to drinking behaviors, current or even past alcohol users used physically abusive parenting practices more often than lifetime abstainers. The dose-response models show that each additional drinking event at a bar or home/party was related to more frequent use of physical abuse.

“These are very important findings in understanding child maltreatment and ways to prevent abuse,” said Bridget Freisthler, the lead author on the study. “As substance abuse practitioners know, not all social support is beneficial and child welfare workers who work with families who have abused their children need to pay closer attention to the types of social support families have available to them.” Dr. Freisthler also pointed out the importance of understanding the role that the neighborhood environment plays in families. “These findings build evidence that child maltreatment is influenced by the interaction between individual and the neighborhood environments that families live in. Allowing a proliferation of alcohol outlets may not be in the best interest of the community.”

Source: Freisthler, B.; Holmes, M.R.; and Price Wolf, J. "The dark side of social support: Understanding the role of social support, drinking behaviors and alcohol outlets for child physical abuse," Child Abuse and Neglect, 38(6):1106-1119, 2014. doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2014.03.011 PMCID: PMC4074514