Vol. 12, No. 1, 2006 Page 5

Heavy alcohol exposure before birth a risk for impaired "moral maturity," delinquency

Children exposed to large amounts of alcohol before birth exhibit a lower level of "moral maturity" than non-exposed peers, a recent study shows.

Amy Schonfeld and colleagues compared 27 children with heavy prenatal alcohol exposure to 29 children with no history of such exposure. The children ranged in age from 10 to 18, and were matched for age, gender, handedness, socioeconomic status, and ethnicity. The alcohol-exposed group included children both with and without Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), a specific pattern of alcohol-related physical and mental abnormalities.

Using a test called the Sociomoral Reflection Measure-Short Form, the researchers found that the alcohol-exposed children typically operated at Stage 2 (responses reflecting a concern with avoiding negative consequences or benefiting oneself), while non-exposed children operated at Stage 3 (concern for others and what is socially accepted). While the overall maturity deficit of the exposed children could be explained by their lower verbal IQs, the researchers found that specific deficits in moral reasoning about helping family and friends remained significant even after controlling for verbal IQ scores. Schonfeld and colleagues say, "This lends additional support to the idea that impaired socialization and interpersonal relationship skills represent a core deficit following prenatal alcohol exposure beyond the influence of depressed IQ scores."

Not surprisingly, alcohol-exposed children were more likely to be delinquents than non-exposed children, with impaired moral reasoning about affiliation, property, and law significantly predicting delinquency. Half of the alcohol-exposed children without FAS exhibited conduct disorder, while none of the children with FAS did—a finding consistent with previous research. The children's verbal IQ scores did not explain this difference.


"Moral maturity and delinquency after prenatal alcohol exposure," Amy M. Schonfeld, Sarah N. Mattson, and Edward P. Riley, Journal of Studies on Alcohol, Vol. 66, No. 4, July 2005, 545-54. Address: Amy Schonfeld, University of California-Los Angeles Neuropsychiatric Institute and Hospital, Dept. of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 760 Westwood Plaza, Room 58-242, Los Angeles, CA 90024, aschonfeld@mednet.ucla.edu.

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