Research published this week in Archives of Disease in Childhood examines risky behavior in children who have experienced parental absence. Adding to earlier studies, the results show that behavioral changes begin earlier than previously thought.

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The effect of parental absence on a child can be long-lasting.

Studies have shown that parental absence due to death or the breakdown of a relationship can have detrimental effects on the child.

These children are more likely to experience poorer mental and physical health in later life.

They are also known to be more likely than their peers to smoke tobacco and drink alcohol in adolescence and adulthood.

However, earlier studies have not found whether parental absence is a risk factor for these types of risky behavior before their teenage years begin.

This is important information because smoking and drinking alcohol at a younger age are known to increase the likelihood of dependence in later life; therefore, knowing at what stage this begins could help design better, earlier interventions.

Additionally, the effect of gender, what age they experienced the loss, and which parent was involved are factors that have not yet been investigated. The authors of the current study explain their intent:

The aim of the present study was to provide the first evidence from a nationally representative cohort study of whether parental absence in early childhood is associated with the uptake of smoking and alcohol consumption before adolescence.”

The team of researchers used data from the UK Millennium Cohort Study; this study measured a variety of health factors in around 19,000 children born from 2000-2002.

Questionnaires were carried out at the age of 9 months, then at 3, 5, 7, and 11 years. In the final questionnaire, the children were asked whether they had ever smoked tobacco or consumed enough alcohol to feel drunk.

In total, the team took data from 11,000 children in the United Kingdom. Of these, 1 in 4 had experienced loss of a biological parent by the age of 7.

By the age of 11, the majority of children had not smoked; however, of those who had, boys were more likely to have tried it than girls, at 3.6 and 1.9 percent, respectively.

Alcohol consumption was more common than smoking. Once again, boys were more likely to have tried it – around 1 in 7 compared with 1 in 10 said they had tried it at least once. When asked whether they had consumed enough alcohol to feel drunk, nearly twice as many boys as girls (12 percent compared with 6.6 percent) answered in the affirmative.

Once the data had been analyzed, the team found that children who had experienced a parental loss before the age of 7 were more than twice likely to have started smoking and 46 percent more likely to have started drinking by age 11.

When the team investigated other potential factors that might have had an impact, they found that the mother’s ethnicity, level of education, age at parenthood, smoking during pregnancy, birth weight, and length of pregnancy did not alter the findings.

They also noted that the child’s gender, the age at which they experienced the parental absence, and which parent was missing had no effect on the results.

Children whose parental absence was due to a parent’s death were less likely to have tried alcohol before the age of 11 than those whose parental absence was for other reasons; however, those who did drink alcohol were more than 12 times as likely to get drunk than children whose parent was absent for other reasons.

Because this study is observational, it cannot draw up firm conclusions as to the cause and effect of increased risky behavior. The authors believe there are probably multiple reasons. They say:

Associations between parental absence and early smoking and alcohol consumption may operate through a range of mechanisms, such as reduced parental supervision, self-medication, and adoption of less healthy coping mechanisms. For instance, nicotine, in particular, demonstrates psychoactive properties and may have benefits for mood regulation.”

With any long-term studies, missing data can skew the results. As the authors point out, their study did not collect information regarding children who lost a parent between the ages of 7 and 11.

That being said, the findings are supported by previous studies in the same vein. Because behavior patterns in early life are known to set patterns for later life, this type of research could be the basis for early interventions in children at greatest risk.

As the authors write, “early life might be an important time to intervene in order to prevent the uptake of risky health behaviors.”

Read about a study that shows health and well-being is no different for children raised in same-sex parent families.