Men who get treatment for alcoholism don't just improve their own health and wellbeing, they also transform their children's home life for the better, according to a recent study.
Researchers found that families in which the father struggled with alcoholism experienced more conflict than families with a non-alcoholic 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 Health.
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.
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, Illinois.
"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 study.
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.