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Painting a More Detailed Picture of Risk for Child Behavioral Problems

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Previous research indicates that children whose mothers used cocaine before giving birth are at increased risk of behavioral problems. However, it is unclear whether the cocaine use itself is responsible for this increased risk, or whether other factors may be involved. Moreover, not all children exposed to cocaine in utero develop behavioral issues, and identifying reasons for different outcomes has proved difficult. Scientists attempted to get a more complete picture of the reasons for children’s behavioral problems by examining risk factors and protective factors, such as family resources and a secure mother-child attachment.

Researchers funded through the Pregnancy and Perinatology Branch studied more than 1,000 children from four cities, collecting data on the lives and behaviors of these children from birth through age 15 years.

They found that children whose mothers were frequent users of cocaine and other drugs during pregnancy were more likely to have certain behavioral problems, even after other risk and protective factors were taken into account. These children were more likely to be aggressive and defiant and to have trouble paying attention. The chances of having such problems also increased for children with other characteristics, such as low verbal IQ and a caretaker with psychological problems.

However, these risk factors did not guarantee that a child would have problem behaviors. At-risk children who also had many protective factors—such as a resilient personality, many friends, and an involved mother—had fewer behavioral challenges than other children with the same risk profile. 

These results indicate that in addition to trying to curb drug use among mothers and to lessen other negative influences, it would be helpful to encourage the development of strong families and social networks and to foster resilience in children (PMID: 23184114).

Last Reviewed: 06/18/2014
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