Special Editorial: Smoke Signals? How Second Hand Smoke Can Impact Your Child’s Mental Health

Posted: 10 Aug 2011 05:19 AM PDT

We have known for a long time that secondhand smoke can have a serious impact on the physical health of children.  Asthma, sudden infant death syndrome, respiratory tract infections, dental decay, and middle ear infections are just a few of the illnesses that children exposed to secondhand smoke develop at significant rates.  In case parents needed an even greater incentive to quit smoking, there is now a growing body of research that suggests that secondhand smoke negatively affects the mental health of children. 

Two recent studies published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine looked at the exposure of children and adolescents to secondhand smoke and whether there was a significant link between the exposure and the development of mental health problems, such as ADHD, depression, and poor behavioral conduct. 

In Bandera and colleagues’ U.S. study, the researchers found that a large sample of 8-15 year-old non-smokers regularly exposed to secondhand smoke had significantly more symptoms related to attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and conduct disorder.  Boys and non-Hispanic whites tended to be most vulnerable to the development of mental health symptoms.  When examining children with ADHD diagnoses more closely, the researchers found that the most significant predictor was maternal smoking during pregnancy.

Hamer and colleagues conducted a study in Scotland, also with a large group of children (ages 4-12 years).  The researchers found that the higher the amount of secondhand smoke exposure, the higher the rate of reported mental health symptoms.  After controlling for variables such as SES, chronic illness, and physical activity, the participants with high secondhand smoke exposure reported significant symptoms of hyperactivity and conduct disorder.  

Hopefully, these findings have caught your eye.  Not only does secondhand smoke have detrimental effects on the physical health of children, it also appears to impact their mental health and this can, in turn,  affect other important areas of functioning such as school and social relationships.  Exposing children to secondhand smoke may be best thought of as a non-option.  The dilemma: smoking is one of the toughest addictions to battle.  Here’s the thing.  Your children need for you to quit smoking.

There are resources upon resources out there for people trying to kick the smoking habit.  And kicking it can take many tries.  In fact, it usually does.  In working with parents, therapists will sometimes ask them to keep a photo of their child(ren) handy so their purpose is always fresh in their minds.  So get that picture out and keep it with you.  Take it out when things feel really tough.  Know that it’s worth it.  And get lots and lots of support.  Here are a couple of sites that may be of use to you as you take on this extremely trying challenge: Webmd has some good information for quitting during pregnancy and the CDC has information for anyone trying to quit. 

A few years ago, a childhood friend of mine lost her mother to lung cancer after a long history of smoking.  She left behind a husband, two adult children, and two young grandchildren, not to mention a huge community of family and friends that were just crazy about her.  She was, to this day, one of the best mothers and spunkiest individuals I have ever encountered.  We would all rather have her here.  I write this post in her memory.  

Sources: Bandiera FC, Richardson AK, Lee DJ, He JP, & Merikangas KR (2011). Secondhand smoke exposure and mental health among children and adolescents. Archives of pediatrics & adolescent medicine, 165 (4), 332-8 PMID: 21464381

Hamer M, Ford T, Stamatakis E, Dockray S, & Batty GD (2011). Objectively measured secondhand smoke exposure and mental health in children: evidence from the Scottish Health Survey. Archives of pediatrics & adolescent medicine, 165 (4), 326-31 PMID: 21135317

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