New link: neurotic behavior, alcoholic parents

Study finds children of alcoholic parents prone to neurosis.
Monday, March 12, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:44 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

An 11-year study of the lives of 489 MU students from the freshman class of 1987 suggests that the children of alcoholics suffer from higher rates of neurotic personality traits.

The study, “Family History of Alcoholism and the Stability of Personality in Young Adulthood,” by Kenneth Sher, a clinical psychology professor at MU, assessed the relationship between family history of alcoholism and personal stability.

“We were able to find two things,” Sher said. “Our study suggested that individuals from alcoholic homes are more at risk for neurotic personality traits, but also that the neuroticism of subjects with or without a family history of alcoholism tends to diminish at least until the third decade of the subject’s life.”

Sher’s peer-reviewed research appeared in the December 2006 issue of the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors. He concluded that while the gap still remains between participants with histories of alcoholism and those without, neuroticism tended to diminish in all the study’s participants over time.

Sher defines neuroticism as the tendency to experience negative emotions.

Sher studied the normative psychological changes in subjects using the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire. Approximately half of the original 489 subjects who signed up for the study in 1987 had a family history of alcoholism; 389 subjects remained involved in the research throughout the life of the study.

“We were able to maintain an overwhelming majority of the participants throughout the course of the study,” Sher said. “When you look at individuals for that long, each stage of life brings interesting new questions you haven’t thought of before.”

Other research has suggested that 50 percent of the relationship between alcoholism in the family and neuroticism of the individual is attributable to genetics, Sher said.

“Much of what we’re seeing here is likely a continuation of what was set in place before the child was ever born,” Sher said. “What we have less research to explains is, why do people become more psychologically stable over time?”

Participants in the study were assessed at least six times, once during each of the first four college-age years of the study — approximately ages 18 to 22 — and again during years seven and eleven, or, approximately, during ages 25 and 29.

“We’ve seen individual lives take a tremendous variety of courses,” Sher said. “Luckily for us, the one commonality between them was a willingness to participate.”

Jenny Larkins, a graduate student who assisted Sher in compiling and analyzing the data, said the study benefits other scientists studying neuroticism by incorporating alcoholism as a variable.

“It was encouraging that we were able to replicate observations of personality changes others had established while bringing family history of alcoholism into the picture,” Larkins said.

Sher said the issue of diminishing neuroticism is a prime topic for further research.

“That difference is still there; it’s just decreased. We’re still working to find out why everyone’s becoming less neurotic,” Sher said. “They say that the young man worries what others think about him, the middle-aged man doesn’t care, and the old man realizes no one was thinking about him in the first place. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not.”

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