Researchers found that families in which the father
struggled with alcoholism experienced more conflict than families
with a nonalcoholic father. But after alcoholic men sought
treatment for their addiction, conflict levels in their homes fell
close to those of the comparison families.
"Alcohol dependence, as well as its treatment, are complicated,"
said Daniel Rounsaville, lead author of the study and a psychologist
at Meadow's Edge Recovery Center in North Kingston, Rhode Island.
"It's great to know that the treatment doesn't just help the
individual, but also the larger family system, that there are
trickle-down effects of the treatment," Rounsaville told Reuters
The study included 67 Massachusetts couples with a male partner
seeking treatment for alcoholism and with children between the ages
of four and 16. The fathers and their partners filled out
questionnaires at the beginning of the study, before alcoholism
treatment had begun, and then again after six and 12 months.
The survey asked about family conflicts over discipline and
finances, as well as verbal and physical hostility; lower scores
indicated a higher exposure to conflict at home.
Another 78 couples with children, but without alcohol abuse issues,
filled out the same questionnaire for the researchers.
At the beginning of the study, children of alcoholics were exposed
to higher levels of conflict at home than children in the other
group. On average, the households of alcoholics scored 22.6 on the
conflict scale, compared to the higher (less conflict) average score
of 28.3 in the comparison families.
But after six months, the scores of families with alcoholic fathers
in treatment rose to 24.6 and after 12 months, to 25.3.
Families of fathers who relapsed into alcohol had lower (worse)
scores than those whose alcoholic dads remained sober, according to
findings published in Addictive Behaviors.
"The harmful effects of alcohol dependence generally do not affect
just the individual; they affect their family. Unsurprisingly, there
is a lot of conflict and arguing," Rounsaville said.
"Seeking treatment can be beneficial by not only helping the person
stop drinking, but also helping them be in a place where they are
able to not have that conflict and turmoil, and the chaotic home
life that negatively impacts kids," he said.
Children who come from conflict-ridden homes tend to be more likely
to display so-called externalizing behaviors, which entail
channeling unpleasant feelings into disruptive — and sometimes
dangerous — action.
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These include issues with anger, getting into fights, delinquency
and starting to abuse drugs and alcohol themselves.
Just as alcoholism affects the whole family, treatment for it
should involve all of those individuals as well, said Sheehan
Fisher, a psychologist at Northwestern University in Evanston,
"A collaborative effort between providers looking to target the
whole family — not just the father — to improve outcomes is
extremely important," said Fisher, who was not involved in the new
For example, couples therapy can help parents learn to engage better
with each other, and family treatment can examine how the family
unit works together. Researchers cautioned that treatment for
alcoholism isn't a cure-all for family conflicts, which can be as
diverse as families themselves.
But in families struggling with addiction, Rounsaville said, "there
is often a tremendous amount of conflict over the addiction itself,
as well as myriad other problems."
They can include the issues many families face, such as mental
health problems, financial stressors and longstanding dysfunctional
family dynamics. Still, without treating alcoholism, it can be
impossible to attempt to work through the other family conflicts
that may be present. That's one reason treatment is important.
"The study shows that it is imperative to seek treatment for
addiction-related issues," Fisher said.
"Not only does therapy help the patient, but it also improves their
family life. That might be a big motivator for those going through
these types of issues within their family," he said.
Addictive Behaviors, online March 15, 2014.
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