Message In A Bottle


Peggy Keller's research tackles alcohol problems and family stress

by Rebekah Tilley
Photos by Richie Wireman

An elementary school teacher notices one of her students is acting out in odd ways. She seems sad and anxious, exhibits random aggressive behavior toward other children, and her schoolwork is suffering.

What’s going on?

Researchers have long been aware that parental alcohol problems relate to these and other behavior problems in children. Yet what happens between Point A and Point C remains a mystery.

Enter Peggy Keller.

“It’s really important for researchers to tackle how alcohol problems translate to difficulties with children,” said Keller, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Kentucky.

Keller is building an impressive and cutting-edge body of research that looks at how family stress leads to physical and mental health problems in children. In particular, she has most recently focused on the stress trigger of parental problem drinking.

Interestingly, these parents usually do not drink so much that they are likely candidates for rehab centers. “These are not people in alcohol treatment facilities. They aren’t exhibiting symptoms of a severe problem,” Keller described.

Yet their drinking does lead to other issues that in turn create stress for their children. Keller has found that parental drinking can cause parents to be less warm and sensitive toward their children. Problem drinking has a greater tendency to lead to aggressive verbal and physical behavior.

Practicing psychologists have precious little empirical research to draw from when working with children exposed to parental problem drinking.

“There is such a huge need for this work. A lot of the practitioners who work with these families are basing their practice on pop-psychology,” Keller said.

Keller also says if you are the child of an alcoholic you fall into the “caretaker child” role or you’re the “acting out” child, and those broad, accepted classifications for the children of alcoholics have no empirical basis. “What my work is seeking to do is replace that lack of evidence,” she stated.

Keller was recently awarded a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute to examine the effect of parental problem drinking on child sleep.

“This seems like an obvious question because alcohol abuse often occurs at night,” said Keller. “There is probably a lot of disruption and chaos during children’s bedtimes. They are probably not kids who have a bedtime routine and who are not kept on a consistent schedule.”

Not getting enough sleep causes devastating problems in children from being irritable and having trouble regulating their emotions during the day to having trouble focusing at school and can even lead to sickness from a suppressed immune system. While many parents struggle with their children’s sleep issues, children of problem drinkers face an extra layer of challenges in getting a good night’s sleep.

“There is this idea that in order to go to sleep, you have to be able to relax. You can’t be worried or trying to be aware of what’s going on,” said Keller. If there are problems going on in your home while you’re supposed to be going to sleep, you’ll try to remain vigilant in case you need to call the police or you need to go hide somewhere. All of these are things that disrupt children’s sleep. And sleep is really important for kids.” 

Keller’s research is cutting edge in her field as most of the work on children’s sleep is done in biology and pediatrics – not psychology. Her upcoming sleep study this spring will use a new form of research technology that will allow participating children to sleep in their own beds at night, as opposed to most sleep studies, which occur in an unnatural laboratory setting. Using a wristwatch-like devise that measures precisely when children fall asleep and wake up, Keller’s study will reach a level of accuracy unknown in prior sleep studies.

“It’s going to revolutionize research on kid’s sleep because the other option is to use parents’ reports, which aren’t very helpful as parents just don’t know how often their children wake up in the night,” Keller said. “Now we’ll be able to gather data for seven nights rather than one or two. We can look at what’s going on in the home on a particular day and compare it to how they are sleeping at night.”

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