Sons of Alcoholics: The Early School Years

  • Children of alcoholics may be at risk for lower intellectual, cognitive and academic performance
  • Children of alcoholics with a co-existing antisocial 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

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 cognitive deficits 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, cognitive and academic performance of their male, elementary-school-aged children.

"What we’re trying to do with this research," explained Edwin Poon, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Michigan State University and first author of the study, "is look at young children growing up in alcoholic families, because they have been found to be at high risk for the development of alcoholism. We wanted to see if there was an early sign, something that we could detect that might be an indicator of later troubles in life. For example, if children of alcoholics have relative cognitive deficits when compared to children of nonalcoholics, perhaps these deficits have the potential to lead to future problems." In addition, researchers differentiated between two types of alcoholic families - those where the father had a co-existing antisocial personality disorder and those where he did not - to see if that might be related to the children’s performance.

The findings - part of a larger longitudinal study of alcoholic men and their families - indicate that children growing up in alcoholic families are at risk for lower intellectual, cognitive 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 cognitive 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."

A real strength of the study, said Poon, was the age of the children examined. All 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."

Another strength of the study, according to Victor Hesselbrock, professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, "is the good, solid information they have collected on the parents. They have information about the parents’ cognitive abilities, their educational attainment, and socioeconomic status. This allows them to look at parental factors in combination with the child to predict outcome."

This information, added Hesselbrock, is what provides an additional interesting finding. "Parents’ cognitive abilities and level of education are a very well-established and major determinant of what their offspring will have in terms of cognitive abilities and educational attainment. Although this study attributes the children’s lower educational attainment and cognitive 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." Hesselbrock acknowledged that other studies have shown that antisocial behavior in both parents and children contribute to their risk for developing alcoholism, but he believes that conduct disorders and educational attainment by parents are both part of "the cluster of factors that are going to lead to their children’s poorer outcomes."

Another point that Hesselbrock wants both scientists and members of the general public to understand is that "differences between groups are not necessarily deficits. For many people, when you’re talking about deficits, you’re talking about some impairment, medical lesion, or something that’s really awful. 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."

Tracking the children’s development is indeed what the Michigan study plans to do. "We expect to continue following these children. In another one or two years," Poon estimated, "we’ll have more information to report."

Funding for this Addiction Science Made Easy project is provided by the Addiction Technology Transfer Center National Office, under the cooperative agreement from the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment of SAMHSA.

Articles were written based on the following published research:

Poon, E., Ellis, D.A., Zucker, R.A., & Fitzgerald, H.E. (2000, July). Intellectual, cognitive, and academic performance among sons of alcoholics during the early school years: Differences related to subtypes of familial alcoholism. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 24(7), 1020-1027.

Hosted at A2