Posted on January 23, 2015 in Adolescents

Cocaine-Using Mothers’ ‘Harshness’ Leads to Aggression, Defiance in Children

We know that prenatal exposure to cocaine puts a growing fetus at risk for serious health complications, but now a new study from the University at Buffalo finds that a drug-using mother’s conduct, particularly harshness toward her child at age 2, predicts problem behaviors in kindergarten, such as fighting, aggression and defiance.

A fetus exposed to cocaine is prone to premature delivery, very low birth weight, small head circumference and stunted length. Babies whose mothers used this extremely addictive drug during pregnancy may also be born with a drug dependency and experience withdrawal. Withdrawal in adults can be extremely painful and distressing, and in newborns it can be life-threatening.

Research also suggests that prenatal cocaine exposure may also place children at risk for long-term health and development problems. Studies have found that these children are more likely to face cognition, attention and information processing difficulties.

Study Explores Effects of Direct, Indirect Exposure

A new study from the University at Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addiction suggests that conditions related to maternal drug use may influence childhood behavioral problems as much as direct prenatal exposure to cocaine. The results of this study were published in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors.

The researchers followed more than 200 mother-and-child pairs during the course of the multi-year study. The goal of the study was to examine both the direct and indirect effects of drug-use exposure in young children. The mother-and-child pairs included families where maternal cocaine use was present and families without maternal cocaine use.

Maternal Harshness

Maternal harshness when children were 2 years old was found to be a strong indicator of which children would exhibit such behavioral problems as aggression and defiance during kindergarten. Furthermore, mothers who used cocaine were more likely to exhibit harsh behavior toward their children.

“Harsh” maternal behavior might include frequent angry verbal outbursts as well as the frequent threat of physical punishment.

The explanation for this behavior may have a chemical basis. Previous studies have found that cocaine use during pregnancy reduces levels of hormones in the mother’s body that help her bond with her child. This makes it more difficult for mothers to have consistently positive emotional interactions with their children, particularly during stressful times.

Lead researcher Rina Das Eiden, Ph.D., suggests that other variables may also be at work that contribute to maternal harshness in cocaine-using mothers. Childhood experiences, including possible home-life struggles of their own, may influence the way mothers behave toward their children. Such difficulties may also have played a role in why these mothers first began experimenting with cocaine.

Influence of Cocaine-Related Behavior Should Not Be Ignored

When considering the effects of cocaine use on infants and children, it is easy to focus on the problem of prenatal drug exposure. Certainly, there is something particularly disturbing about the thought of an infant being directly exposed to a powerful illegal drug like cocaine.

However, the results of this study emphasize the importance of recognizing and addressing the other ways in which prenatal and postnatal maternal cocaine use can affect the mother-child relationship and child behavior.

Parenting interventions may be helpful to help mothers who engaged in prenatal drug use to improve the bond with their children and learn positive parenting techniques. Children who don’t learn to self-regulate their emotions during their preschool years are much more likely to exhibit aggression, consistently defy authority and get into fights.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the outlook for children who were exposed to cocaine during pregnancy is much better than many experts once believed. However, the risks that do face these children should be recognized and understood so these children do not get left behind.

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