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J Stud Alcohol. 1990 Mar;51(2):156-63.

Labeling the child of an alcoholic: negative stereotyping by mental health professionals and peers.

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Psychology Service (116B), Veterans Administration Medical Center, Dallas, Texas 75216.


Although the establishment of programs for children of alcoholics (COAs) is laudable for those who are in distress, the effects of identifying and labeling COAs have largely been unknown. These studies investigated the possibility of negative stereotypes toward COAs emanating from peers and from the mental health community. In Study 1, 570 high school students were asked to rate six separate roles (typical teenagers--male and female; teenagers with an alcoholic parent--male and female; and mentally ill teenagers--male and female) using 11 bipolar adjective pairs. Subjects rated "COAs" as significantly different overall from both "typical teenagers" and "mentally ill teenagers." When individual nonsignificant differences occurred, COAs were more often grouped with mentally ill teenagers. These correlational findings were extended in an experimental study (Study 2) using mental health workers (N = 80). Subjects watched videotapes of an adolescent who was described as having either a positive or negative family history of alcoholism and as having either a high degree of social success (school leader) or social problems (behavior problems). The adolescent targets labeled COA were judged as more pathological than those labeled non-COA in terms of current and predicted psychological health and psychopathology. These judgments held regardless of the teenagers' labeled current behavior. Both studies demonstrated robust negative stereotypes about COAs both from the COAs' peers and from those responsible for treating COAs. The potentially harmful consequences of labeling COAs--especially those who are currently well-adjusted--are discussed.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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