Parental Smoking May Trigger Anxiety, Cognitive Deficit, and Addiction in Children

couple sitting on a bench smoking in front of baby

Martin-dm / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Parental smoking may lead to the development of anxiety, addictive behaviors, and cognitive deficits, in children.
  • Researchers studying rats found that male offspring of rats who consumed nicotine developed anxiety-like behavior and cognitive deficits.
  • It's the latest evidence to suggest that parental smoking can negatively affect the mental health of children.

The dangers of smoking are well-documented, and there's new evidence to suggest that parental smoking may increase the risk of children developing anxiety and addictive behaviors.

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing discovered possible links between fathers using nicotine and their offspring developing anxiety, addictive behaviors, and cognitive deficits. And although this research was conducted on rats, it offers preventative insights on parental smoking that could be useful without subjecting humans to unnecessary exposure.

This is associated with reduced expression of SATB2, a protein, in the part of the brain that has a significant impact on learning and memory.

Both male and female offspring of the rats who consumed nicotine went on to consume nicotine themselves. However, only the male offspring developed both cognitive deficits and anxiety-like behavior—something in line with existing human data.

It's essential to remember that this study did not use human subjects. That said, the findings are in line with other related research and support the ongoing conversation around the impact smoking has on mental health.

The Effects of Parental Smoking

Previous research has suggested links between parents smoking and their children also smoking, something that’s probably not surprising, as the children will have grown up in an environment where smoking was normalized. 

Results from one study from 2020 suggested associations between parental smoking and behavioral issues and mental health disorders in the short run, but highlighted that other family characteristics often co-occur with parental smoking and that these might be linked to these issues in the longer term.

Marcus Munfao, PhD

If a parent smokes, the child may see that and be more likely to smoke themselves, and if there are effects of smoking on mental health then that will (on average) influence the child’s mental health.

— Marcus Munfao, PhD

A lot of research focuses on the effects of smoking while pregnant, rather than after the child is born. For example, there are associations between maternal smoking and children being diagnosed with ADHD, links between parental smoking and lower cognitive outcomes, and further links between tobacco use during pregnancy and mental health problems in children.

“There are broadly two ways any parental behavior can affect their offspring,” says Marcus Munafo, PhD, Professor of Biological Psychology at the University of Bristol, “One is direct—in other words, the behavior itself influences the behavior of the child, for example through modeling of the parental behavior. If a parent smokes, the child may see that and be more likely to smoke themselves, and if there are effects of smoking on mental health then that will (on average) influence the child’s mental health. 

“There are other possible mechanisms too—the behavior (e.g., smoking) could affect the developing fetus. The other way is indirect—if there is a genetic influence on a particular behavior, then the parent will pass some of their genes onto their child. If a parent has a genetic predisposition to smoking, then (again, on average) their child will also have a similar genetic predisposition. Teasing apart these two possibilities is notoriously difficult!”

Effects of Smoking on Mental Health and Physical Health

While smoking has physical health effects, it can affect mental health too. Smoking tobacco alters the brain chemistry and has been linked to mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, and that’s just in the smoker themselves—and even social smoking is harmful.

“There is quite good evidence now that smoking has a detrimental effect on mental health – smokers are more likely to suffer from common mental health problems such as depression, as well as experience severe mental illness (e.g., schizophrenia) and there is growing evidence that this association is causal," explains Dr. Munafo.

This evidence comes from a range of different types of study, and is also supported by evidence that when smokers quit their mental health tends to improve.”

While smokers often feel as if smoking helps their mental health, research shows that quitting smoking can improve mental health—with the effects as noticeable in those with psychiatric disorders as in those without. The benefit to mental health may even be equivalent to the benefit of using antidepressants.

Stopping Smoking

While smoking is harmful to health regardless of age, there are particular risks when it comes to young people smoking—as they may be more likely to start doing should their parents already be smokers. 

“Most people start smoking in adolescence, but most of the physical health consequences of smoking take several years to emerge. However, dependence develops much more rapidly, so that by the time an adolescent smoker reaches adulthood they are likely to be dependent already. There are reasons to believe that the adolescent brain is more sensitive to the effects of addictive substances, and the development of dependence,” says Dr. Munafo. 

The earlier somebody starts smoking, the earlier they’ll become exposed to the harms of smoking. If a child or teenager begins to smoke, they may be more susceptible to these harms, as they haven’t finished growing. There’s evidence, too, that the risk of developing conditions like lung cancer rises more steeply with the duration of smoking than with the number of cigarettes smoked per day.

It’s never too late to quit smoking, however, whether you’re a parent worried about the effect of your own smoking on your child, or you’re worried about a young person smoking. 

What This Means For You

Smoking can be harmful not only to the smoker themselves but to the people around them, and quitting smoking can benefit you and your family.

If you or a loved one are struggling with nicotine addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Maurer J, Wimmer M, Turner C, et al. Paternal nicotine taking elicits heritable sex-specific phenotypes that are mediated by hippocampal Satb2Mol Psychiatry. 2022. doi:10.1038/s41380-022-01622-7

  2. Dickter C, Forestell C, Volz S. The effect of parental smoking on pre-adolescents’ implicit and explicit perceptions of smoking-related cuesPsychol Addict Behav. 2018;32(7):759-769. doi:10.1037/adb0000420

  3. Steeger C, Bailey J, Epstein M, Hill K. The link between parental smoking and youth externalizing behaviors: Effects of smoking, psychosocial factors, and family characteristics. Psychol Addict Behav. 2019;33(3):243-253. doi:10.1037/adb0000444

  4. Gustavson K, Ystrom E, Stoltenberg C, et al. Smoking in pregnancy and child ADHD. Pediatrics. 2017;139(2). doi:10.1542/peds.2016-2509

  5. Srivastava P, Trinh T. The effect of parental smoking on children’s cognitive and non-cognitive skillsEconomics & Human Biology. 2021;41 doi:10.1016/j.ehb.2021.100978

  6. Easey, K. E., & Sharp, G. C. The impact of paternal alcohol, tobacco, caffeine use and physical activity on offspring mental health: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Reproductive Health, 2021.18(1), 214.

  7. Taylor G, McNeill A, Girling A, Farley A, Lindson-Hawley N, Aveyard P. Change in mental health after smoking cessation: systematic review and meta-analysisBMJ. 2014;348. doi:10.1136/bmj.g1151

  8. Health NC for CDP and HP (US) O on S and H. The Health Consequences of Tobacco Use Among Young People. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (US); 2012.