(CNN)We know that parents have a profound influence on their child’s life, and increasingly, scientific research is connecting the dots between attention or neglect and behavior.
Children who experience the loss of a father or mother early in life are more likely to smoke and drink before they hit their teens, a new study of English families found. This association between parental absence and risky behavior in childhood occurred no matter whether the cause was death, separation or divorce.
In fact, preteens with an absent parent were more than twice as likely to smoke and drink, the researchers discovered. They defined parental absence as the loss of a biological parent before a child reached age 7.
“We know from previous research that people may take up risky health behaviors as a coping strategy or as a form of self-medication, to help them cope with stressful situations,” noted Rebecca Lacey, an author of the study and a senior research associate at University College London.
Possible evidence of the link between parental absence and behavior comes from an unlikely source from across the pond: President Obama.
In a new MTV documentary, “Prescription for Change: Ending America’s Opioid Crisis,” Obama reveals his past drug use: “When I was a teenager, I used drugs, I drank, I pretty much tried whatever was out there, but I was in Hawaii, and it was a pretty relaxed place. I was lucky that I did not get addicted except to cigarettes, which took me a long time to kick.”
Notably, Obama’s parents divorced around his 3rd birthday, within the parental absence time frame defined by Lacey and her colleagues.
Based on her findings, Lacey says, early life assistance provided to children with an absent parent may help prevent substance use, which might set a pattern and lead to poor fitness later in life.
“Health behaviors established earlier in life are known to track into adulthood,” Lacey and her co-authors wrote in their study, published Monday in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood.
Thousands of children studied over time
The research team examined data from the UK Millennium Cohort Study, which records health data for thousands of children born between 2000 and 2002. Among the goals of the study is to collect information on fathers’ involvement in children’s care and development. After a first survey of the children at 9 months old, surveys collected information for each child at ages 3, 5, 7 and 11 years old.
Overall, the researchers examined the records of nearly 11,000 children. Of these thousands of children, more than a quarter had experienced the absence of a biological parent by age 7.
During their age-11 survey, the children were asked whether they had ever smoked cigarettes or drunk alcohol. Those who had tried booze also answered whether they’d had enough to feel drunk.
Still, Prinstein cautions against misinterpreting the results since past studies revealed that “aunts, uncles, grandparents, coaches, members of the neighborhood community can serve a very important role for kids.”
Someone who is not in the “formal role of a parent” can still have a “dramatic” and positive influence in the life of a child, he said, and they may even help a child resist peers who have begun to experiment with substances.
Prinstein concluded, “I would hate for anyone to feel stigmatized that what they’re providing for a child is not OK if they are offering that child access to other adults, like grandparents and aunts and uncles — because we know that is very helpful.”
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