A new study has revealed that the loss of a parent due to divorce, death or abandonment increases the risk factor for children to smoke and drink – and for poor health outcomes throughout their lives.
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 the loss of a parent 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. 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.
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“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.
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.
loss of a parent, divorce, parental absenceDuring 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.
The results to the smoking question would soothe the nerves of most parents: The overwhelming majority of preteens said they had not smoked. However, 11-year-old boys were more likely than girls to have tried cigarettes: 3.6% versus 1.9%.
Drinking was much more common among the 11-year-olds. Here again, the boys outnumbered the girls, with one in seven boys reporting that they’d tried alcohol, compared with one in 10 of the girls. Of the preteens who tried drinking, nearly twice as many boys (12%) said they’d had enough to feel drunk, compared with slightly less than 7% of the girls.
Lacey and her colleagues calculated that preteens who had experienced the loss of a parent before the age of 7 were more than twice as likely to have taken up smoking and 46% more likely to have started drinking.
Although the boys were more likely to have reported smoking or drinking, they weren’t any more likely than girls to have reported smoking or drinking as a consequence of parental absence, explained Lacey.
One interesting datapoint in the study showed that kids whose parent had died were less likely to have tried alcohol by the age of 11; however, those who had tried it were more than 12 times as likely to get drunk than kids with absent parents due to separation or divorce.
Overall, Lacey and her colleagues believe that a range of factors — including less parental supervision and unhealthy coping mechanisms on the part of the kids — may contribute to the association between the loss of a parent and risk behaviors.
However, these results are not definite. Other adults in the children’s lives have been proven to make a big difference. 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.

How You Can Help Your Children Through The Loss of A Parent

loss of a parent, divorce, parental absenceMost children are likely to experience the loss of a parent through divorce. While divorce can be stressful, kids can cope with it well as long as both parents focus on the well-being of the children first. The goal is raising children who are happy and secure in both their parents’ love, where possible.

Here are some tips for getting through divorce:

Love means more than money

Your time, attention and emotional presence are more important to your children than gifts.

It’s not about winning

A divorce is not a competition with your ex or for your children. Encourage your kids to have fun with their other parent.

Get into the spirit of a new start

It’s time for giving, forgiving, and fresh starts. Try to let go of anger and treasure all you have – despite what you may have lost.

Communicate and coordinate with your children’s other parent

A brief email, telephone message, or conversation can reduce the risk of confusion for everyone, including the kids.

Do the details

Work out exactly where your children will be during what times, and when, where, and how exchanges will take place.

Set up a plan for the next holiday season now

If you went through the agony of 11th-hour negotiations previously, be better prepared for holidays next time. Get extended family involved in the planning too.

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Maintain family traditions with your children

Rituals may change with circumstances, but preserve the familiar where and when you can.

The good news is that if you can come through a divorce protecting your children from conflict, they’ll do much better. A high conflict divorce is where marriage ends and war begins and children are frequently unwittingly used as pawns in this high stakes, emotionally bloody demolition. Children will cope with this situation in a number of unhealthy ways, and will almost certainly sustain emotional damage, exacerbating the loss of a parent that the child is already experiencing.

At Mitchells Solicitors, our friendly and experienced family lawyers always put the best interest of the children first – which means they will help you resolve your divorce as quickly and as stress-free as possible. To find out more, contact us today for your free, 10-minute phone consultation.