Sons of alcoholics: The early school years

  • Children of alcoholics may be at risk for lower intellectual, thinking and academic performance.
  • Children of alcoholics with a co-existing antisocial personality disorder may be at even greater risk.
  • Parental thinking abilities and educational attainment may also determine offspring performance.
  • Parental alcoholism, conduct disorders, and low thinking abilities and educational achievement may all contribute to their children’s poorer thinking and educational outcomes

Children of alcoholic parents are not fated to a life of misery, but chances are that they will face hardships that children of nonalcoholic parents will not. Such hardships may include thinking shortfalls that may, in turn, increase the children’s chances of becoming alcoholics themselves later in life. A study in the July issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research examines the link between fathers’ alcoholism and the intellectual, thinking and academic performance of their male, elementary-school-aged children.

Children growing up in alcoholic families are at risk for lower intellectual, thinking and academic performance than children from nonalcoholic families. More specifically, children of antisocial alcoholics displayed the lowest intellectual performance, poorest academic achievement, and relatively poorer abstract planning and attention abilities when compared to children of nonalcoholic parents.

"We see these thinking deficits as a potential risk factor for later problems in life," said Poon, "in particular as they move into adolescence and early adulthood. These deficits may lead to an inability to make proper decisions or interfere with decision-making processes. For example, young people with verbal and reasoning deficits may have difficulties interacting with peers or adults, which may lead them to frustration, isolation, and higher rates of punishment from adults, all of which may lead to problems that include early alcohol use, higher rates of alcohol problems, and conduct disorder."

All children were six to eight years of age. "A lot of studies use teenage groups," he said, "but it’s important to understand as early as possible when these deficits might show up, especially when you’re talking about intervention possibilities. Some of the interventions out there may not be working because they’re not targeting young children."

Although this study attributes the children’s lower educational attainment and thinking performance to parental antisocial alcoholism, the real difference is that the parents in that group also had a lot lower IQ and a lot lower educational attainment than the other group."

The educational achievement and the scores demonstrated by these kids with antisocial parents are not really out of normal range. They’re on the lower end, but they’re not deficits. These are differences that we’re seeing between these groups of children, and they’re probably due to parental background characteristics rather than something that’s happening within the child itself."

Both Poon and Hesselbrock spoke of the combined influence of genetic and environmental factors that together increase an individual’s susceptibility for developing alcoholism. "The good news is that very few of those are really immutable," said Hesselbrock. "At this point in time, these children are performing at the low end of normal. Perhaps when they’re in middle school, they’ll meet a teacher who will be very interested in them and help them focus on their reading and math skills, and their scores will pop up."

From a press release of the University of Connecticut School of Medicine

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