Published: Aug. 2, 2000

MSU study: Male children of alcoholic fathers face special challenges, risks

EAST LANSING, Mich. - Children of alcoholic parents are not fated to a life of misery, but chances are they will face hardships that children of nonalcoholic parents will not, according to a new Michigan State University study.

The study, published in the July issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, examines the link between fathers' alcoholism and the intellectual, cognitive and academic performance of their male, elementary-school-aged children.

The study looked at young male children growing up in alcoholic families because these children have been found to be at high risk for the development of alcoholism. All were between 6 and 8 years of age.

The researchers differentiated between two types of alcoholic families - those where the father had a co-existing anti-social personality disorder and those in which he did not - to see if that might be related to the children's performance. Information on the parents' cognitive abilities, educational attainment and socioeconomic status was also collected.

Among the study's findings:

  • Children of alcoholics may be at risk for lower intellectual, cognitive and academic performance.

  • Children of alcoholics with a co-existing anti-social personality disorder may be at even greater risk.

  • Parental cognitive abilities and educational attainment may also determine offspring performance.

  • Parental alcoholism, conduct disorders and low cognitive abilities and educational achievement may all contribute to their children's poorer cognitive and educational outcomes.

The findings - part of a larger study looking at alcoholic men and their families - indicate that male children growing up in alcoholic families face risks to their mental development that male children of nonalcoholics do not. Male children of anti-social alcoholics face even greater challenges: they displayed the lowest intellectual performance, poorest academic achievement, and relatively poorer abstract planning and attention abilities when compared to male children of nonalcoholic parents.

"We see these cognitive deficits as a potential risk factor for later problems in life, particularly in adolescence and early adulthood," said Edwin Poon, a doctoral candidate in psychology and lead author of the study.

"These deficits may lead to an inability to make proper decisions or interfere with decision-making processes. Young people with verbal and reasoning deficits may have difficulties interacting with peers or adults, which may lead to frustration, isolation and higher rates of punishment from adults. In turn, these problems may lead to early alcohol use, higher rates of alcohol problems and anti-social conduct."

Co-authors of the study include Hiram E. Fitzgerald of the Department of Psychology at Michigan State University; Deborah A. Ellis of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at Wayne State University; and Robert A. Zucker of the Departments of Psychiatry and Psychology and the Alcohol Research Center at the University of Michigan.