Cognitive and behavioral deficits associated with parental alcohol use

J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 1997 Sep;36(9):1177-86. doi: 10.1097/00004583-199709000-00009.


Objective: To review and synthesize the scientific literature on cognitive and behavioral deficits associated with parental alcohol use and to highlight areas for future attention.

Method: Studies of children of alcoholic parents (generally fathers) and of children prenatally exposed to alcohol were reviewed, focusing on cognitive and behavioral findings. Relevant animal studies were also reviewed.

Results: Large numbers of children may be affected by parental alcohol use. Prenatal alcohol exposure is frequently associated with specific cognitive and behavioral deficits. Children of alcoholic fathers also can present with difficulties in learning, language, and temperament. Similarities in the deficits of these two groups were noted.

Conclusions: The problems associated with parental alcohol use merit much more clinical and research attention. Current clinical approaches often fail to recognize the diagnostic and therapeutic significance of this history, and subgroups of alcohol-affected children may confound research studies of other problems. Subtle deficits in learning, language, and self-regulation may be the most developmentally devastating and the least likely to be identified and addressed effectively. This is an important area in which to combine behavior genetic and environmental approaches to understanding development.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Alcoholism* / genetics
  • Alcoholism* / psychology
  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / etiology
  • Child
  • Child Behavior Disorders / etiology*
  • Child of Impaired Parents* / psychology
  • Child of Impaired Parents* / statistics & numerical data
  • Cognition Disorders / etiology*
  • Cost of Illness
  • Family Health*
  • Female
  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Intellectual Disability / etiology
  • Language Disorders / etiology
  • Learning Disabilities / etiology
  • Male
  • Maternal Exposure / adverse effects
  • Paternal Exposure / adverse effects
  • Social Environment