Alcoholic Fathers and Children's Development

Study Tracks Social, Emotional, and Cognitive Development

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It's well known that the alcohol use disorder of the mother has a big influence on the early development of children, but what is not widely known is that the father's problems can also affect child development at this stage.

The same alcoholics who claim that their drinking affects no one but themselves would be surprised to find that their alcohol abuse, depression, and other emotional problems can begin having an effect on their children as early as 12 months old.

Social, Emotional and Cognitive Development Affected

While parental alcohol abuse plays a key role in a child's development, alcoholism is rarely an isolated factor. The presence of symptoms of depression in either parent can also be a factor, researchers say.

The social, emotional and cognitive development of children with alcohol-abusing fathers has been noted in research at the University at Buffalo's Research Institute on Addictions (RIA).

At the RIA, Kenneth Leonard, Ph.D., and colleagues tracked the development of children of alcohol-abusing fathers and a control group at 12, 18 and 24 months of age. The children were observed with each parent in a natural play setting.

How Alcohol Abuse Affects Parenting

When the children were 12 months old, the study found that compared to the control fathers, the alcohol-abusing fathers:

  • Spoke less to their infant
  • Expressed less positive involvement
  • Expressed more negative emotions
  • Reported more aggravation with their infant

Observations of the parents with their children also revealed that the alcohol-abusing fathers were less sensitive in their parenting compared to the control fathers. This means they were not aware of their children's behavior, or not guided by the behavior of their children.

The mothers who were married to the alcohol-abusing fathers behaved with their infants much like the mothers married to the control fathers. But, if the mother had her own alcohol abuse problem or exhibited symptoms of depression, it contributed to the less-sensitive parenting of the children.

Anxiety, Depression, and Behavioral Problems

By the time the children were 18 months old, the children of alcohol-abusing father:

  • Displayed symptoms of anxiety
  • Had more symptoms of depression
  • Displayed more externalizing problems, like tantrums

If the mothers of the children had no symptoms of depression, only the children of the alcohol-abusing fathers displayed externalizing problems. However, when the mother did have depression symptoms, the children displayed more externalizing problems whether the fathers had alcohol problems or not.

Depression Can Play a Greater Role

Therefore, the RIA researchers concluded that depressive symptoms in either or both parents may play a larger role in the child's development than alcohol abuse.

The researchers wrote that it was important to note that not all of the children in alcohol-abusing families exhibited any problems at all. In fact, there was great diversity among the behavior of the alcohol families and some of their children were doing well.

Developing Other Problems

"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," the authors said.

Other studies have found that parental drinking continues to affect children beyond the 24 months age and children of alcoholics can develop negative outcomes that include depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, substance abuse or interpersonal difficulties.

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