Having an alcoholic stepfather increases risk of behavior problems in girls more than boys

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Living with an alcoholic stepfather is associated with a significantly higher risk of behavior problems in girls than boys, according to a new study by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University

The assessment of 1,580 twin youths from intact families and 166 youths from stepfather families who participated in the Mid-Atlantic Twin Registry at VCU also showed that the risk for behavior problems was higher among girls who lived with an alcoholic stepfather than girls who lived with their alcoholic biological father.

The converse was found in boys. The study, which is published in the May issue of the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, showed that boys who lived with alcoholic stepfathers had fewer conduct disorder problems than boys who lived with their alcoholic biological fathers.

The high prevalence of divorce in American society has focused considerable attention on how divorce impacts on children," says Debra L. Foley, Ph.D., assistant professor of human genetics and lead author on the study. "Studies have shown that children of divorced parents have more psychiatric problems, especially conduct problems and particularly in stepfamilies as opposed to single-parent families. Our study indicates that alcoholism in a stepparent explains part of the increase in behavioural problems in girls whose parents are divorced."

The VCU researchers interviewed twins, aged 8-17, to assess whether they suffered from symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, conduct disorder, major depression, separation anxiety or other psychiatric problems. Parents and stepfathers were interviewed about their lifetime history of alcoholism, antisocial behavior, anxiety, depression, panic disorder and social phobia. Children whose biological fathers had died were excluded from the study because parental death and divorce could have a different impact on children's subsequent adjustment to a stepfather.

The study found that mothers in stepfamilies suffered more alcoholism, antisocial behavior, major depression and social phobia than mothers in intact families. Stepfathers had a higher incidence of alcoholism and major depression than biological fathers in intact families. In addition:

  • Girls and boys in stepfamilies had more behavior problems and other psychiatric symptoms than girls and boys in intact families.
  • Boys in intact families had significantly more conduct disorder and attention-deficit problems than girls in intact families but fewer symptoms of depression.
  • Maternal and paternal alcoholism as well as living in a stepfamily all were associated with a higher risk of conduct disorder in children.
  • Girls who lived with an alcoholic stepfather had significantly more conduct disorder symptoms than girls who lived with an alcoholic biological father. The converse was true for boys.
Our findings suggest that alcoholism in a stepfather may explain a significant portion of the increased risk for conduct disorder symptoms in girls in stepfamilies, perhaps as a result of the disrupted and stressful family environment often associated with parental alcoholism," Foley said. "The increased risk of behavior problems in boys living with an alcoholic father as opposed to an alcoholic stepfather is consistent with a genetic link between alcoholism and conduct disorder in boys."

The study was supported by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health and the Carman Trust for Scientific Research.p

A copy of Dr. Foley's study is available via e-mail in PDF format or by fax. For information, please call VCU News Services at (804) 828-1231.

The Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics is a multi-disciplined, integrated research program of VCU's Departments of Psychiatry and Human Genetics, focused on identifying genes and environments that cause psychiatric diseases and behavioral differences. For more, see https://vipbg.vcu.edu/


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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