Winter 2008

Maternal Problem Drinking

Findings link children's behavior problems and maternal problem drinking

In a recent article in the Journal of Studies on Drugs and Alcohol (March 2007) the relationship between maternal drinking, children's behavior problems and the family home environment were studied. The data base used by the author comes from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a large sample, which began with youth in 1979. 
The author finds that boys are generally more impacted in that they exhibit an increase of behavior problems over mothers who do not abuse alcohol. Girls did not show an increase of behavior problems, but differed on measures of environmental/emotional support. Sons appeared to receive greater emotional support, whether the mother was a problem drinker or not. The author believes that one possible explanation for this is that mothers who are problem drinkers add a specific tension or strain to the mother-daughter relationship that is absent in the mother-son relationship. For boys, it is noted that as maternal problem drinking decreases, so do the boy's behavior problems. 

The author cautions that there are likely confounding variables, that is, issues that need to be looked at when viewing what other factors may contribute to the findings. Of course, the father factors are important. It is noteworthy that women who abuse alcohol are at greater risk at becoming involved with men with similar behavior. Women who are problem drinkers typically suffer from depression. In general, men and women who are dependent on alcohol are ten times more likely to commit suicide than people without such dependency. Additionally, about 12,000 children in the USA are born each year with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. These children may have delays in school related abilities and evidence hyperactivity, making FAS children more difficult to parent. 

Partner Violence Explored

It has been long known that most crimes of violence occur between people who know each other. This would include people who are dating, couples who are married or cohabitating and between parents and children. Researchers feel that because not everyone is willing to report an act of partner violence, the statistics probably do not fully represent the magnitude of the problem. Research also shows that even couples in counseling will under report domestic violence, even though about half the couples presenting for counseling have experienced some type of domestic violence. An additional problem is that many counselors fail to explore the domestic violence issue, so it gets overlooked. In my own experience as a counselor educator, I have found that most counselor training programs do not include, even in 2008, much training specific to the area of partner violence. Some states, however, like California, have passed laws that include mandatory continuing education in the area of domestic violence for mental health professionals. There is also a proposal in California to publish those with domestic violence histories on the Internet. 
Additionally, people may report abusive behavior that is not necessarily violent and requiring the attention of law enforcement. In a recent article of the Journal of Child Custody, Drs. Gould and Martindale emphasize the difference between abuse and violence by nothing that while abuse may entail behavior such as a partner controlling finances and isolation, this is not necessarily a form of violence. Nonetheless, the dynamics involved in both situations, in my opinion, at times, are very similar. 
Researchers have identified two types of partner violence; expressive and instrumental. Expressive partner violence typically escalates between two or more people through arguments and shouting matches and the resulting behavior (slapping, pushing, hitting) is a consequence of the parties' arousal and escalating behavior. This type of behavior can respond to counseling, if both parties assume responsibility for their behavior and commit to change. In my experience, the "best" situation is when both partners regret the experience, are motivated to maintain a relationship and commit to change.

If alcohol or substance abuse is involved this typically will add another challenge to the couple making constructive changes and adds fuel to their already tenuous control. There is research to suggest that nearly half of partner violence involves alcohol abuse.

Instrumental violence is different. Statistics show that about 2.1 million women are raped or assaulted each year and 1.5 million of the attackers are partners or former partners. Men are primarily responsible for this type of violence and their motivation for the domestic violence is to control and dominate their partner. Even though women clearly can and do initiate and perpetuate acts of expressive violence, by and large it is men who use instrumental violence. The violence can be sudden and quite unpredictable, with no clear precipitating event.

Recently, many psychologists have begun to look at partner violence from an evolutionary perspective. A paper in the American Journal of Criminal Law reviews the contribution that evolutionary psychology brings to understanding this behavior. The author indicates that uxoricide (wife killing) rates have remained stable over the last two decades, while other forms of violence, including mariticide (husband killing) have dropped. Indeed, most spouses who are killed by a husband have prior histories of violence in their marital relationship. These incidents of spousal homicide usually do not occur as isolated incidents of violence. 

Evolutionary psychology uses the idea that humans need to maximize their reproductive success. This differs from what most people think of when they think of evolutionary theory in general. The field of genetics has changed the way evolution is looked at in contemporary times. Specifically, it is assumed that humans, like other animals, work hard to protect their gene pool and often go to extremes to accomplish this. 

One of the main ideas in this theory is that of paternity assurance. Part of the concern with regard to partner violence is that if a man is insecure about paternity issues, he may begin to increase control and dominance over the female partner. The author indicates that sexual jealously is the most prevalent reason for male partner homicide and battering and cites this as evidence of what evolutionary psychologists refer to as mate guarding. David Buss, a noted evolutionary psychologist, has indicated that mate guarding is a strategy designed to keep mates from defecting and to keep away potential mate poachers. He indicates that women also evidence mate guarding, but for different reasons. He indicates that while men attempt to keep away rivals, women work to keep men from other women who will make an emotional investment in them or who may rival their physical attractiveness. He cites research indicating that women are less apt to forgive emotional involvement, while men are less likely to forgive sexual infidelity.

Buss also indicates that mate guarding behavior ranges from vigilance and keeping an eye on one's mate to the extreme of domestic violence, in which dominance and control are more obviously exhibited. 

  • The Murderer Next Door, by David Buss (evolutionary psychology)
  • Some of Buss' work can be found on Youtube
  • When Anger Hurts, by Mathew McKay (self help)
  • Anger; Wisdom for Cooling the Flames, by Tich Nhat Hanh (self help, spiritual guidance)
  • For therapists, I recommend reading ÒDon't Hit my MommyÓ by Alicia Lierberman and Patricia Van Horn.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Does your mood change when the winter begins? Do winter months lead to increased rates of depression? Does sunlight have something to do with the winter blues?

Winter solstice begins sometime between December 20th and the 23rd of each year. At this time, the earth is tilted at its maximum as it orbits the sun and we (in the Northern Hemisphere) receive less sunshine, thus producing a colder climate. This is particularly true, of course, for people living in the northern latitudes, where seasons vary. The solstice also marks the shortest amount of daytime, as indicated by sun rise and sunset. Ancient civilizations marked this time through various rituals and it has generally been accorded a special time throughout history.

Biology and Sunlight

Light information enters our retina and is routed to the hypothalamus and then to the pineal gland. The hypothalamus is located near the brain stem. It has various responsibilities in our daily life, including coordinating circadian rhythms (our ability to go to sleep, wake up, and so on). The pineal gland is responsible for regulating melatonin and is basically at the end of the visual system. Melatonin is a body chemical that is synched to day/night and is responsible for making us drowsy at night. During the day, melatonin levels are low and during the evening, they are higher. While melatonin levels decrease during the day, serotonin, a chemical associated with mood, increases.

Research has shown that serotonin levels go down during the evening because serotonin is transformed into melatonin at that time.

Melatonin secretion has been well studied. If you turn a light on in your room, this activity is probably not going to turn off melatonin production. But during the summer when there are lengthier periods of sunshine, melatonin production has been found to decrease and researchers feel it is the lengthier exposure to sunlight that is responsible. At the onset of the Winter Solstice, our melatonin levels probably start to increase and serotonin, a brain chemical related to feeling good, begins to decrease.

Melatonin has been found to be associated with sleep-awake cycles, body temperature, immunity and reproduction and sexual development. Melatonin has been used to treat sleep disorders, migraines and other difficulties. It actually has a wide range of possible therapeutic benefits, one of which includes treatment of cancer.

History of Diagnosis
Seasonal Affective Disorder was first described in the mid 1980s. Symptoms include, but may not be limited to, a lack of positive mood, weight gain and oversleeping. The symptoms of SAD disappear with the onset of summer.

Though Seasonal Affective Disorder is linked to winter, suicide rates have been found to be lower during the winter months. In fact, a 2002 issue of the journal Epidemiology, indicates support for the long standing finding that suicides increase globally (yes, in all countries) in early summer! These researchers based their research, in part, from data that can be found at

Melatonin is just one of the theorized causes of SAD. Other research has pointed to the role of serotonin, the isolating features of winter and other factors that possibly contribute to SAD symptoms. There is some research indicating that people who move from the Southern US to the Northern US are at more risk for SAD and other research that suggests higher rates of mistakes are made at work during periods of diminished sunshine.

Treatment with light therapy began widespread use several years ago. Early morning light exposure, using a special lamp, has been found by many people to be very helpful in treating SAD. Compared to placebo, the light therapy has proven more effective and generally, if people respond, it is fairly quickly and within a few days.

A 2007 article from the journal Mental Health Aspects of Developmental Disabilities, detailing case reviews, suggests that light therapy also shows promise for persons with intellectual disabilities, seasonal affective disorder and challenging behaviors. Again, the time for emotional and behavioral problems to remit was fairly brief. The author speculates that the reason the light therapy is not used more often is that we need more studies. (Actually, in my experience, I do not know any cases where this has been presented as a treatment option).

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) also helps people with depression change their beliefs and assumptions. CBT has an excellent track record for treating depression in general and can be used to help treat seasonal affective disorder specifically. Exercise, such as walking outside, (particularly during sunny days!) has actually been shown to be helpful in alleviating SAD symptoms.

Note: as Pete Ensminger indicates in his book "Life Under the Sun", John Kellogg of the Battle Creek Sanitarium attempted to treat four to five thousand people per year who suffered from gangrene, diabetes and other ailments with light therapy. It's good we have finally found what light therapy really can help! 

Website for Parents

I highly recommend that parents or helpers working with parents take a look at This website is well organized and has many helpful articles that deal with topics ranging from parenting aggressive toddlers to helping parents respectfully set limits with their teenagers. There also many audio clips. I enjoyed the one about how to vaccinate your child. The basic idea is that children need diverse experiences and parents need to allow children to fail at times, in order for them to learn to solve problems effectively later in life.

The articles are in pdf format and very easy to view or download. There is no cost; all you need is a computer with an internet connection.

There are many sensible parenting techniques available. For example, the 123 Magic system as developed by Thomas Phelan. The love and logic approach, by Dr. Foster Cline and Jim Fay, is a philosophy about how to communicate with your child. It combines giving guidance with respect for autonomy.