Authoritarian mothering may indirectly contribute to alcohol problems by fostering maladaptive perfectionism

New research published in Addictive Behavior Reports sheds new light on perfectionism and how parenting contributes to risk for alcohol–related problems. The study found that authoritarian parenting by mothers — but not fathers — was linked to negative facets of perfectionism, which can indirectly influence alcohol use.

“This model is inspired by some very perfectionistic individuals who used to work in my lab. I became interested in this topic after observing some of my more technically talented students develop alcohol use disorders or relapse from alcohol addiction,” said Julie A. Patock-Peckham, an assistant research professor at Arizona State University and the corresponding author of the study.

“These students were obsessed with how others viewed them to the point of fearing any feedback regarding their writing. In psychology, scientists have to be very comfortable having their work edited and revised by others. One particular student was unable to present in front of others for fear of not doing it perfectly well.”

“These students seemed to be using alcohol to cope with their life issues at a greater rate than students who were more comfortable not being perfect all the time,” explained Patock-Peckham, who is also the director of the Social Addictions Impulse Lab.

“As someone who has often conducted studies utilizing parenting styles as indirect influences of drinking outcomes, I wanted to determine which style(s) of parenting were associated with maladaptive perfectionism.”

A survey of 419 university students uncovered a complicated pathway between parenting styles, depressive symptoms, and alcohol-related problems.

The researchers found that participants with a more authoritarian mother tended to exhibit higher levels of a negative facet of perfectionism known as discrepancy, which in turn was associated with increased depressive symptoms.

“There are adaptive forms of perfectionism such as higher standards and a need for orderliness and there are maladaptive forms of perfectionism such as discrepancy — the distance between the ideal self and one’s actual self,” Patock-Peckham explained.

Perfectionism discrepancy was directly linked to both more depressive symptoms and alcohol-related problems. Increased depressive symptoms, meanwhile, were associated with self-medication motives for drinking, thereby leading to both increased alcohol use and alcohol-related problems.

Surprisingly, however, having a more authoritarian father appeared to lead to the oppose outcome. Patock-Peckham told PsyPost that “authoritarian fathers actually promote high standards in their offspring, which is a protective link against depression and using alcohol to self-medicate.”

“We can only speculate that demanded obedience by fathers operates differently than demanded obedience by mothers. It may be perceived as a form of caring by fathers to have rules for offspring even when those rules are unyielding,” the researchers wrote in their study.

Authoritative parenting in mothers, as opposed to authoritarian, was indirectly linked to less alcohol use. While authoritarian parenting is characterized by having unyielding rules without warmth, authoritative parenting is characterized by warmth with clear guidelines.

Authoritative parenting in both mothers and fathers also contributed to increased high standards.

“This is just a first exploratory pass at looking at this potential explanation for why some people may choose alcohol to cope with their problems and disappointments in life. There really needs to be more work on this topic including some longitudinal studies. I would also love to see a study on perfectionism that examines all the motives for using alcohol,” Patock-Peckham said.

“Perfectionism is a grossly understudied construct when it comes to health and well-being outcomes,” she added.

“While high standards may be related to positive outcomes, needing to be perfect in the eyes of others literally can be harmful to your health. We need to stop taking pride in glorifying perfectionism discrepancy. No one ever did anything truly novel, innovative, or exciting in science if they were too afraid to look foolish on occasion.”

The study, “Perfectionism and self-medication as mediators of the links between parenting styles and drinking outcomes“, was authored by J.A. Patock-Peckham and W.R. Corbin.