Kids with an Absent Parent May Drink and Smoke Earlier

Child holding white rose behind his backAccording to the results of a new study, children who experience the absence of a parent before age 7 are more likely to try smoking and drinking by the time they are 11 years old. Previous research has associated parental absenteeism with these behaviors in adolescents and adults, but this investigation sought to examine the impacts as they may occur earlier in life.

Children who face adverse conditions early in life are often prone to continuing problems later in life. Childhood adversity may come in the form of abuse, neglect, or abandonment, among other situations. According to attachment theory, the disruption of a parent-child relationship when the child is young can have negative effects on emotional and psychological development later on.

Parental Absence Can Influence Behavior in Childhood

Published by the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood, this study included data on almost 11,000 United Kingdom children that had previously been collected for the UK’s Millennium Cohort Study. All participants were born between 2000 and 2002.

Researchers reviewed parental presence at five age points (initially 9 months, then at ages 3, 5, 7, 11) and absence was noted only if it was due to the death of one parent or by separation of the parent-child relationship. At the final age point (11 years), researchers recorded child usage of alcohol, extent of usage, and reports of cigarette smoking.

The findings showed children who experienced parental absence before the age of 7 were more likely to have tried alcohol and tobacco by age 11. No differences were found based on child gender, age of absence, or which parent was absent.

In another significant finding, children who experienced absence of a parent due to death were more likely to drink to the point of drunkenness. These results suggest parental absence at a young age can have lasting behavioral effects that begin before the teen years.

Parental Absence as an Epigenetic Effect

A 2014 review in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology suggests the negative effects of parental absence are at least partially supported by epigenetics. Epigenetic effects are changes to the way genes are expressed in the body and are usually caused by interactions with environmental factors. Scientists continue to reveal new ways in which humans are impacted by epigenetics. Sensing that a parent is not there when needed may trigger biological processes that can alter genetic expressions on a physical level, though further research is needed to test this theory.


  1. Glowatz, E. (2016, October 10). Absent parents may lead to risk-taking tweens. Medical Daily. Retrieved from
  2. Kundakovic, M., & Champagne, F. A. (2015). Early-life experience, epigenetics, and the developing brain. Neuropsychopharmacology, 40(1), 141-153. doi:10.1038/npp.2014.140
  3. Lacey, R. E., Zilanawala, A., Webb, E., Abell, J., & Bell, S. (2016). Parental absence in early childhood and onset of smoking and alcohol consumption before adolescence. Archives of Disease in Childhood. doi:10.1136/archdischild-2016-310444

© Copyright 2016 All rights reserved.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • REX


    October 20th, 2016 at 10:52 AM

    not as many eyes there watching over you

  • Laurence


    October 21st, 2016 at 10:52 AM

    Again this is a MAY sort of situation, nothing ever definitive. There could be other things going on in the home that would influence someone to make this type of choice.

  • Jenny


    October 24th, 2016 at 2:55 PM

    I think that there should also be some clarification here in terms of whether we are talking about a parent who has just up and left or if a parent has passed away. Personally it seems like there wouldn’t be that much of a difference, if a parent is missing from your life then they are missing. But I know that there are probably some studies that show that there could be very different outcomes in situations like these just depending on the reason behind why there is not more pf a parental presence.

  • Rod


    October 25th, 2016 at 10:23 AM

    I guess that I can see both sides of this argument.

  • Caleb


    October 26th, 2016 at 4:12 PM

    It is already sad enough to know that these are children who will grow up without the benefit of having two parents in their lives. To now know the extended difficulties that they will face makes it even harder to think about.

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of's Terms and Conditions of Use.

* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.