Drug-Abusing Fathers and the Effect on Their Children
July 12, 2004
HealthNewsDigest.com

Study Is First to Link Drug-Abusing Fathers to Serious Psychopathology in Their Children: Problems markedly worse than in children with alcoholic fathers or non-abusing fathers

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- (HealthNewsDigest.com). A study by researchers at the University at Buffalo and Old Dominion University has found that being raised by a father who abuses drugs is even more harmful to the mental health of school-aged children than being raised by a father who is an alcoholic.

The study, one of the few to focus on children living with drug-addicted fathers, found that such children exhibit significantly higher levels of worrying, anxiety, depression, behavioral acting out, and other antisocial behaviors than do children in families with alcoholic fathers or families in which neither parent abused drugs.

"Many studies have assumed that children of alcoholics and children of drug abusers were very similar," said William Fals-Stewart, Ph.D., lead investigator and a senior research scientist at UB's Research Institute on Addictions (RIA).

"Our findings, however, indicate that fathers who are drug abusers expose their children to more conflict, poorer parenting and greater physical violence between the parents than do alcoholic fathers. Drug addicted fathers also tend to watch over their children less well than alcoholic fathers.

"As a result," he says, "children being raised by drug-abusing fathers have more emotional and behavioral problems than children whose fathers are alcoholic."

Previous research, for instance, has found that witnessing violence at home undermines a child's sense of personal security. This study found that children of drug-abusing fathers were more likely to witness violence in their homes than are children of alcoholic fathers.

Drug-addicted fathers in the study also exhibited more dysfunctional disciplinary practices with their children. In particular, they tended to over-react to a child's misbehavior. This, says Fals-Stewart, appears partially responsible for the higher levels of anxiety, fearfulness, helplessness, and ultimately, depression found in their children.

The study was funded in part by grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the Alpha Foundation. It was published in the June, 2004 issue of Journal of Family Psychology.

Frank D. Fincham, Ph.D., SUNY Distinguished Professor in the UB Department of Psychology, and co-principal investigator on the study, says, "An extensive body of psychological research has examined the children of alcoholics, but until now, very little has been known about children of drug-abusing parents.

"Earlier studies identified some areas of disturbance in early childhood among children of drug abusers, including attention problems," he adds, "but offered little evidence of the global psychiatric impairment we found here."

The study also found that:
o Mothers' parenting practices did not vary significantly across family types. Mothers in homes with drug-addicted fathers - none of the mothers in the study were addicted to drugs or alcohol - appear to have a stabilizing influence in the home and may buffer the children from poor parenting by their fathers.
o Drug-abusing fathers reported a significantly lower level of paternal monitoring of child behavior than did alcoholic or non-substance-abusing fathers. The researchers say that paternal monitoring appears related to the level of acting-out behavior of children studied. This finding supports a substantial body of earlier research that links low levels of parental monitoring with delinquency and antisocial behavior.

The study found that parenting behavior and levels of parental conflict affect children's mental health. This contradicts prior attempts to attribute all effects of family distress on children to parenting problems alone, according to Fincham.

The study consisted of 120 custodial couples with children ages 8-12. One child (the "target child") in that age group was studied in each family.

Forty families had fathers who met the American Psychological Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 4th ed. (DSM-IV) criteria for current cocaine or opiate dependence. Forty families had fathers who met DSV-IV criteria for alcohol dependence, but did not meet current abuse or dependence criteria for other illicit drugs, and 40 families had fathers who did not meet current or lifetime DSM-IV dependence criteria for alcohol or illicit drugs.

The families were matched on common socio-demographic characteristics shown by previous research to be related to parenting practices and children's emotional and behavioral adjustment. Families were excluded if the mother met current or lifetime abuse or dependence criteria for alcohol or other drugs or engaged in hazardous drug use or drinking while pregnant with the target child.

The emotional and behavioral adjustment of target children was assessed through interviews with parents, teachers and the children themselves. Researchers also used a number of well-documented measurement tools to assess the children's depressive symptoms, levels of anxiety and acting out behavior, levels and types of parental conflict in the home, parenting monitoring behavior, and the level of dysfunctional discipline practiced by parents.

The other investigators on the study were Michelle L. Kelley, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Old Dominion University; and James Golden and Timothy Logsdon, RIA project staff associate and counselor, respectively.