Looking beyond risk – Scottish Executive scoping study on parental substance misuse

29 August 2007

In January 2006 the Scottish Executive Substance Misuse Research Programme published its Parental Substance Misuse Scoping Study “Looking Beyond Risk” written by English researchers Lorna Templeton, Sarah Zohhadi, Sarah Galvani and Richard Velleman .

With regard to FATHERS, the researchers noted the following:

The literature in the database about fathers fell into three main categories.
Level one: the impact on children of having a substance-misusing
(primarily ‘alcoholic’) father. The majority of abstracts fell into this
Level two: the impact of substance misuse (again primarily alcohol) on the
father-child relationship and/or father characteristics / behaviours that
mediate the impact of substance misuse on their children.
Level three: the impact of substance misuse on fathers and fathering,
exploring fathers’ views and concerns and the fathering role. There were
few abstracts here.

Level One

Several impacts for children of having a substance misusing (mainly alcohol)
father were identified:

  • their own substance use
  • psychopathology and psychiatric
  • physical health
  • personality characteristics
  • psychosocial adjustment
  • adult attachment
  • cognitive functioning
  • school attainment or adjustment
  • behaviour conduct, risk and resilience factors.

A small number of abstracts also looked at genetic transmission of addictive behaviours between substance misusing
fathers and their offspring.

A small number of studies explored the differential findings associated with drug misuse and alcohol misuse (e.g. Cooke et al., 2004; Kelley & Fals-Stewart, 2004). Both found that children of drug misusing fathers were at greater risk than alcohol misusing fathers of negative behaviours, psychosocial impairment and lifetime psychiatric disorder.

Level Two

The literature suggests a complex pathway between paternal substance misuse
and unfavourable outcomes for children. Some studies focussed on the negative
impact of substance misuse on various aspects of fathering (Das Eiden et al.,
2002; Das Eiden & Leonard, 2000; Dumka & Roosa, 1995; Brooks et al, 1998),
whilst others look at mediating factors (e.g. family structure or paternal warmth)
that may reduce the negative impact of (paternal) substance misuse on children.

Some studies explored differences depending on whether fathers, mothers or
both parents are substance misusers. Finally a number of studies focussed on
the impact of substance misuse not only on the children, but also the (usually non
substance-misusing) mothers in these families (e.g. Frank et al, 2002; Fisher,
1998; Das Eiden & Leonard, 1999), and report negative psychological and
physical outcomes associated with the fathers’ substance misuse. These are all factors to take into account when considering intervention and service delivery.

Few abstracts made direct reference to paternal responsibility, and the importance of father-child relationships, and there appears to be a general sense that mother-child relationships are much more significant (Cavell et al., 2002;
Tweed & Ryff, 1996). However, Tarter et al. (2001) take a unique angle, reporting the finding that children living with both parents have better outcomes, in terms of conduct problems and own substance misuse, than those whose
fathers were absent – even when the father is misusing substances. Tarter et al suggest this is because single men show more severe alcohol or drug misuse than those living with their families. Furthermore, they suggest that mothers with absent substance misusing partners have fewer resources for effective parenting. This at least seems to suggest a role for substance misusing fathers and reveals.  they can offer something to their children. However, given that these findings are from one study, further work would be needed.

Level Three

McMahon & Rounsaville (2002) assert that, “although a number of socioeconomic forces have converged across cultures to make fathering one of the more prominent social issues of the new millennium, the status of substanc eabusing men as fathers is rarely acknowledged in the conceptualisation of public policy, service delivery or research focusing on the adverse consequences of drug and alcohol abuse“’ (p1109). The studies that do attempt to explore these issues further reveal that fathers are overwhelmingly placed, or place themselves, in a peripheral position where the care of their children is concerned.

In a study exploring drug addicted fathers’ uncertainties about their importance to their children, Arenas & Greif (2000) describe how fathers often believe their children were better off without them. The authors found these men had a number of concerns about fatherhood, including, ‘having no concept of what a father should be, confusing the roles of manhood and fatherhood, feeling inadequate as a provider and not knowing how to reconnect with children they have not seen, particularly daughters’ (p339). The authors also describe the guilt the fathers felt if they abandoned their children. They go on to suggest possible interventions with fathers that focus on teaching them about positive fathering, and encouraging them to discuss their own parenting experiences. Again the study reveals the impact on parenting capacity, but more so, fathers’ concerns about this. It is extremely positive to note the suggestion for working with such fathers on their fathering techniques, and their associated anxieties.

Only one study reported an impact on fathers where mothers were the substance misusers. Dumka & Roosa (1995) report mothers’ problem drinking contributed to less positive father-child relationships. Further gaps in the literature include the role of fathers in families with substance misusing mothers. Studies looking into the efficacy of parenting interventions with fathers may also be useful in terms of finding strategies to build the types of relationship and family environment which are known to protect children from the risks associated with paternal substance misuse.

Conclusions and recommendations

There is a great deal of literature available that explores the impact of paternal substance misuse on children, but there is a major lack of research into fathering and fatherhood in relation to this area. Fathers are typically viewed as “entirely negative influences that need to be actively excluded from the lives of their children” (McMahon & Giannini, 2003, p337). Debates around the role of fathers within substance misusing families occur as part of a broader societal debate around the role of fathers in relation to social exclusion, environmental factors, and the role of the wider family and social networks.

Thus, there is a need for further work and understanding, both on the role that fathers play in increasing
risk to children, both directly via their negative behaviours and indirectly via both their negative behaviours towards the child’s mother, and any lack of acceptance of responsibility for their role as a parent. However, it also needs to explore the more positive or protective role that they may play if they do accept responsibility as a parent for protecting their children or acting in ways that promote their children’s resilience.

There is little literature that has explored fathering in much depth; even fewer have explored fathers’ voices on this subject. McMahon & Rounsaville (2002) suggest a number of areas that need investigation, including the ways in which substance misuse contributes to a ‘compromise of fathering’, the ways in which this compromise of fathering contributes to psychological distress in these men, and the ways in which intervention might be used to minimise the harm associated with paternal substance misuse. Some work is underway in Scotland (Whittaker, 2005) to nvestigate this issue in more depth but more work is clearly needed.

Read the full text of “Looking Beyond Risk” Parental Substance Misuse: Scoping Study 

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