Women who smoke during pregnancy put themselves and their unborn children at risk for serious physical health complications. Research also suggests that smoking during pregnancy (SDP) increases antisocial behavior (ASB) in these children. Many studies have been conducted that demonstrate a very casual link between SDP and ASB, and others have shown a more direct link. However, familial risk factors and family environment also influence the potential for ASB in children. To disentangle these relationships and better understand how SDP affects ASB, Brian M. D’Onofrio, Assistant Professor of the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University, recently led a study involving 6,066 children born to women who were part of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a broad representation of women throughout the United States.
D’Onofrio looked specifically at SDP and later ASB from adolescent self-reports, affiliation with ASB peers, and criminal behaviors and beliefs. He found that the children who were born to SDP women were more likely to exhibit ASB and adhere to criminal attitudes. The results showed that the risk of ASB for the children increased with the amount of cigarettes smoked per day by the mothers during pregnancy. However, when D’Onofrio compared the adolescents to their siblings who were exposed to varying rates of SDP, the levels of ASB and criminal affiliation were not significantly different.
Overall, the results suggest that family environment, family risk, and SDP affect the likelihood of ASB in adolescents born to mothers who smoke during their pregnancies. Additionally, the SDP mothers had children with higher rates of academic and learning challenges than the non-SDP mothers. These children were also at increased risk for other conduct and behavior problems such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, maladaptive stress management strategies, and poorer functioning. Although the findings from this study did not present evidence for a clear and direct link between SDP and ASB, they did expose indirect relationships. D’Onofrio said, “The results strongly suggest that familial factors account for the correlation between SDP and offspring adolescent ASB, rather than a putative causal environmental influence of SDP.”
D’Onofrio, B. M., Van Hulle, C. A., Goodnight, J. A., Rathouz, P. J., Lahey, B. B. (2012). Is maternal smoking during pregnancy a causal environmental risk factor for adolescent antisocial behavior? Testing etiological theories and assumptions. Psychological Medicine, 42.7, 1535-1545.
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