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When Fathers Recover from Substance Abuse, Children Show Improved Behavior, Functioning

By Kathleen Weaver

Release Date: June 6, 2002

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Researchers at the University at Buffalo's Research Institute on Addictions (RIA) and Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., have found that when fathers recover from substance abuse, their children exhibit significant improvements in psychosocial functioning.

Furthermore, these improvements may be enhanced if behavioral couples therapy is included as part of substance-abuse treatment, they reported in the April issue of the American Psychological Association's Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.

This is the first study to examine systematically the secondary effects of behavioral couples therapy on children of substance-abusing parents. In addition, it is unique in that both alcohol- and drug-abusing parents were included in the study and similar results -- in terms of children's psychosocial functioning, couples' relationships and father's substance-use frequency -- were found with both types of couples. Lastly, in contrast to previous research, children's psychosocial adjustment was assessed both prior to treatment and at regular intervals during the year after treatment.

William Fals-Stewart, Ph.D., RIA investigator and research associate professor in the UB Department of Psychology, said the findings are of particular importance given that before treatment, approximately one-third of the children living with an alcohol-dependent father and one-half of children living with a substance-abusing father exhibited symptoms of significant psychosocial impairment.

"Many of the children we saw initially were anxious, angry or depressed, and having trouble in school, either with their studies or interacting with peers," added Fals-Stewart. "Following their parents' involvement in behavioral couples therapy, when both communication skills between the partners and the couples' relationship improved, the home environment improved sufficiently to make a real difference in the quality of the children's lives and their functioning."

Fals-Stewart conducted the study with Michelle L. Kelley, Ph.D., of the Department of Psychology at Old Dominion University. Funding was provided by over $4 million in grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

"Compared with individual treatment alone," Fals-Stewart explained, "behavioral couples therapy, in conjunction with individual treatment, appears to be a more effective form of treatment for the men in these families and is more beneficial in terms of its secondary effects on children."

Behavioral couples therapy is aimed at rebuilding and strengthening a couple's relationship by teaching them to express positive feelings, share activities and reward abstinence. Studies have shown lower divorce and separation rates in the two years after couples participate in behavioral couples therapy.

"Alcoholism and drug addiction are among the most insidious and devastating public health concerns today," Fals-Stewart said.

"In 1992 and again in 1996, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that nearly 30 percent of female and 18 percent of male adult problem drug users live with children and that more than six million children are being raised by substance-using parents. The results of this study suggest a dynamic relationship among child, parent, couple and family adjustment. An intervention such as behavioral couples therapy that addresses all these issues concurrently is likely to have the most positive effects on children."