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Mistreated children more likely to smoke, drink, fight
and suffer from depression as adolescents

September 5, 2006


Children who are left home alone, physically neglected, physically assaulted or sexually abused are more likely to smoke cigarettes or marijuana, drink alcohol, abuse inhalants and be depressed or violent when they reach adolescence, according to a study by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Public Health.

The study found that the most common form of maltreatment was leaving a child home alone, with two out of five respondents (41.5 percent) reporting that their parents or other adult caregivers left them home alone at least once when an adult should have been with them. The researchers hope the finding raises more concern about the link between neglectful parenting and future health.

“Although child neglect is the most common type of maltreatment, it receives much less attention than physical or sexual abuse”, said Dr. Jon Hussey, research assistant professor of maternal and child health at the UNC School of Public Health and a fellow at the Carolina Population Center. “However, the associations between child neglect and adolescent health risks were largely comparable to those found for child abuse”.

The study, published in the September 2006 issue of the journal Pediatrics, examines the association between maltreatment of children and their state of health when they reach adolescence. Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, researchers found that supervision neglect, physical assault, physical neglect and contact sexual abuse before the sixth grade were all associated with a number of major adolescent health risks.  Each type of maltreatment was associated with eight or more of 10 adolescent health risks, including drug, cigarette and alcohol use; violence; and depression.

More than one in four children (28.4 percent) reported physical assault, defined as being slapped, hit or kicked by a parent or other adult caregiver. The third most prevalent type of maltreatment was physical neglect, where a parent or caregiver did not meet a child’s basic needs, such as keeping him/her clean, fed and adequately clothed. Finally, by the time they entered sixth grade, about one in 25 (4.5 percent) said they had been victims of contact sexual abuse committed by a parent or other adult caregiver.

“Because many behaviors that influence adult health are initiated and established in adolescence, understanding how childhood experiences influence these behaviors will help prevention and treatment efforts”, Hussey said.  “Children and adolescents stand a better chance of growing up to become healthy adults if we can intervene early and effectively”.

Co-authors include Dr. Jonathan B. Kotch, a UNC professor of maternal and child health, and Dr. Jen Jen Chang, assistant professor of community health in epidemiology at the Saint Louis University School of Public Health.

Note:  Jon Hussey can be reached at (919) 966-1731,