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Parental substance use increases health risks among children

Children whose parents or caregivers misuse alcohol or use, produce or distribute drugs face an increased risk of medical and behavioral problems. According to a new clinical report by experts at Beth Israel Medical Center (BIDMC) and Boston Children's Hospital, pediatricians are in a unique position to assess risk and intervene to protect children. The report, "Families Affected by Parental Substance Use," is available online today and slated for publication in the August print edition of Pediatrics, the journal of the American Association of Pediatrics.

"Alcohol misuse and substance use are exceedingly common in this country, and parents' or caregivers' substance use may affect their ability to consistently prioritize their children's basic physical and emotional needs and provide a safe, nurturing environment," says co-author Vincent C. Smith, MD, MPH, a neonatologist at BIDMC and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School (HMS). "Because these children are at risk of suffering physical or emotional harm, pediatricians need to know how to assess a child's risk and to support the family to get the help they need."

An estimated one in five U.S. children grows up in a home in which someone misuses alcohol or has a substance use disorder, the authors write. Whether from the toxic effects of exposure to these substances or from the neglect of their basic needs by parents or caretakers struggling with substance use disorders, children in these households commonly experience developmental and educational delays and, later, are at higher risk for mental health and behavioral problems. They also are more likely than their peers to have substance use disorders themselves later in life.


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