Children who lose a biological parent as a result of death or relationship break-down in early childhood have twice the risk of drinking alcohol and smoking before they reach their teens, a new study suggests.
According to previous research, childhood adversities are associated with poorer mental and physical health in adulthood, and the ‘loss’ of a parent has been linked to a heightened risk of smoking and drinking in adolescence and later life.
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Researchers from the University College London in the UK, drew on data from the UK Millennium Cohort Study, which has been tracking the health of almost 19,000 children born between 2000 and 2002, in regular surveys.
The first of these was carried out nine months after birth, with subsequent surveys when the children were three, five, seven and 11 years old.
At the age of 11 the children were also asked whether they had ever smoked or drunk alcohol, and whether they had ever consumed enough to feel drunk.
Parental absence was defined as the ‘loss’ of a biological parent before the child was seven years old.
In all, the researchers had complete data for almost 11,000 children, more than one in four of whom had experienced the ‘loss’ of a parent by the age of seven.
Most children had not smoked by the age of 11, although among those that had, this behaviour was more likely among the boys: 3.6 per cent vs 1.9 per cent of the girls.
Drinking alcohol was more common, with boys once again more likely to have tried it: around 1 in 7 of them (almost 15 per cent) and around 1 in 10 of the girls (10.6 per cent) said they had ever drunk alcohol.
Of those that had tried alcohol, around twice as many of the boys – nearly 12 per cent compared with 6.6 per cent of the girls – were likely to say that they had consumed enough to feel drunk.
Analysis of the data showed that children who had experienced parental absence before the age of 7 were more than twice as likely to have taken up smoking and 46 per cent more likely to have started drinking alcohol by the age of 11.
These findings held true even after taking account of potentially influential factors, such as educational attainment of the parent(s); mother’s ethnicity; mother’s age at parenthood; smoking during pregnancy; length of pregnancy; and birth-weight.
Similarly, the child’s sex, the age at which they first experienced parental absence, or which parent was missing, had no bearing on the findings.
However, while children who had lost a parent through death were less likely to have drunk alcohol by the age of 11, those that did, were more than 12 times as likely to get drunk than were children whose parent was absent for other reasons.
The research was published in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood.