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Father's Drinking Affects Kids

Study Tracks Social, Emotional, and Cognitive Development

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Updated November 23, 2003

While there has been considerable research documenting the problems of children born to depressed and alcohol-abusing mothers, research scientists at the University at Buffalo's Research Institute on Addictions (RIA) have demonstrated that alcohol abuse, depression and other problems in the father also are related to children's development.

Alcohol-abusing fathers are less-sensitive parents and some, but not all, children of such fathers exhibited emotional and behavioral problems in research led by Kenneth Leonard, Ph.D., and Rina Eiden, Ph.D., senior research scientists at RIA.

The research, results of which were published in the May/June issue of Infant Mental Health Journal, has been funded by three successive grants from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Leonard, a clinical psychologist who also is a research professor in the Department of Psychiatry in the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, and Eiden, also an assistant research professor in the medical school's Department of Pediatrics, have tracked the social, emotional and cognitive development of children of alcohol-abusing fathers and fathers in a control group as the children reached 12, 18 and 24 months of age.

Less Sensitive

At all three ages, the children were observed with each parent in a natural play setting. With colleagues Ellen Edwards, Ph.D., project coordinator, and Felipa Chavez, Ph.D., a post-doctoral fellow, the researchers have begun to map out the parenting and child problems related to paternal alcohol abuse.

At 12 months of age, they found that fathers who abused alcohol spoke less to their infant, expressed less positive involvement and expressed more negative emotions than did control fathers. In addition, alcohol-abusing fathers reported more aggravation with their infant than did fathers without alcohol problems.

The researchers also found that, in comparison to the control fathers, the alcohol-abusing fathers generally were less sensitive in their parenting and were not aware of, or guided by, their child's behavior.

In contrast, mothers married to alcohol-abusing fathers behaved with their babies in similar ways as mothers married to control fathers. However, a mother's own alcohol problems and her level of depression were related to less-sensitive parenting.

By 18 months, the children of alcohol-abusing fathers were reported to have more symptoms of anxiety and depression than control children. However, this effect could be attributed to the higher level of depression evident among the alcohol-abusing fathers. The fathers' alcohol problems also were related to externalizing problems, such as temper tantrums, among the 18-month-olds, but only among families in which depressive symptoms in the mother were absent. When the mothers exhibited depressive symptoms, the children had more externalizing problems regardless of the alcohol problems of the father.

Other Factors

"It is important to recognize that not all of the children in alcohol-abusing families were reported to have problems. There was great diversity and some children appeared to be doing fine," Leonard noted. "The alcohol-abusing fathers and their wives often report histories of problem behaviors, as well as symptoms of depression. In fact, these depressive symptoms may be largely responsible for most of the behavioral problems observed in the children."

Eiden added, "The effects of alcohol abuse in child development cannot be considered in isolation. We have to examine these effects longitudinally and seek to discover sources of resiliency in these families."

Leonard and Eiden's research team has continued to track the progress of the same children and their families, following up when the children are 3 and 4 years of age and again when they enter kindergarten.

"Our hope," said Eiden, "is that this research will help us understand the processes by which family problems influence child development and thereby provide clues as to the best ways to help children at risk."

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