New Findings About Substance Abuse in Sons of Fathers With Addiction Problems

A 15-year study about the intergenerational transmission of substance abuse reveals a link to early predictors of substance abuse and resilience in boys whose fathers are substance abusers.

“The goal and significance of this study is to help develop more effective prevention and treatment approaches directed towards teen boys who have a very high risk for substance addiction,” said Dr. Howard Moss, associate chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia, Pa. Moss, along with David Baron, chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science, recently presented their research at the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry.

The study initially used a demographic mix of 250 families where the father had no substance abuse or other psychological problems and 250 families where the father was a substance abuser. The subjects were later restratified to add another important element — fathers who had substance addiction and antisocial personality. The lives of their 10-year-old sons were observed. “We wanted to capture these kids prior to any exposure to drugs and evaluate them at certain intervals as they entered into adolescence to deal with the inherent social pressures.”

There were some surprise findings. “We found that the sons from the group whose fathers had both substance abuse and anti-social personality not only had conduct disturbances, but also showed significantly higher rates of anxiety and depression. We’ve identified a group of teens who are at the highest risk for a bad outcome,” Moss said. “They are the ones who will take the biggest toll on society — the ones who will do drugs and wind up in our prison systems.”

Collaborative, effective prevention efforts should be focused on this group, Moss said. “We hope that prevention experts will consult with psychiatrists who are involved in understanding the pathway to bad outcomes so that better prevention strategies will be developed and targeted to teens who need it most.

Moss said that their earlier analysis of sons of fathers with and without substance addiction revealed that children who come from families where the father is a substance abuser, not surprisingly, suffered with various emotional conditions. He explained that most of these were manifested as behavior problems or disorders of socialization — conduct disturbances, oppositional behavior, aggression, and impulse control problems — but not depression or anxiety.

Substance addiction continues to be a significant problem in this country, Moss explained. Approximately 6.5% of the US population has had a drug-dependence problem at some time in their lives. “And when you add alcoholism it increases to 20 percent.” Landmark Scandinavian cross-adoption studies have revealed that boys whose biological fathers were substance abusers, even when raised by good adoptive parents, had an 8-fold increased risk of becoming substance abusers, he said. “Our study was predicated on identifying families based on the father’s substance abuse and studying its impact on their sons.”

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