November 14, 2008


Teens, parents and drugs

Being a good parent is a tough job, and it seems to get tougher every year. And one of the things that make it challenging is the easy availability of drugs.

Joseph A. Califano Jr. has been concerned about the effect of drugs and alcohol on teenagers for years, and the former secretary of health, education and welfare founded The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. The center conducts an annual survey on teens and drugs, and we first editorialized about one of his surveys back in 2001.

This year’s survey focused on what parents do—and don’t do—to influence the risk of substance abuse by their 12- to 17-year-old children. Califano reported on some of the results of that survey in the Oct. 27 issue of America magazine.

His conclusion, which shouldn’t be at all surprising: “Teens whose parents are ‘hands on’—engaging themselves in their teens’ day-to-day lives, relaxing with them, having frequent family dinners, supervising them, establishing standards of behavior, instilling a sense of the importance of religion in their children and setting positive examples of healthy behavior—are much less likely to smoke, drink or use drugs.”

Prescription drugs have become the drug of choice for many teens. This year’s survey found for the first time that such drugs were easier for teens to obtain than beer. Addictive prescription drugs are often found right in their homes. Of teens who abuse prescription drugs to get high, 34 percent said they get them from their homes. Another 31 percent said they get them from their friends, who usually got them from their homes.

Califano wrote that kids tend to think that prescription drugs are safer than drugs bought from street dealers since they come from a pharmacy and their parents have them. One easy solution would be for parents to keep track of the number of pills they have.

Teens also continue to smoke marijuana. Half of 16- and 17-year-olds said that smoking marijuana is more common than smoking cigarettes for those their age. This year’s survey found a 35 percent increase in just one year in the number of teens who can get marijuana in an hour or less—an increase of 1.4 million teens (4.4 vs. 5.8 million). And that was in a year when the population of 12- to 17-year olds decreased by almost half a million.

Califano wrote that the survey uncovered “problem parents” who enable their teens to use drugs by their actions and inactions. The problem parents, he said, are those who “fail to monitor their children’s leaving their home and hanging out on school nights [Monday through Thursday]; fail to keep away from their children their own dangerous and addictive prescriptions drugs, like painkillers and stimulants; fail to address the problem of drugs in their children’s school; and set a bad example.”

What must good parents do? Above all, set a good example since teens have always paid more attention to their parents’ actions than their words alone. If parents use illegal drugs or abuse alcohol, chances are that their teens will do so, too.

Two other things were found to be important: getting teens involved spiritually and having family dinners. The survey found that teens who never attend religious services are three times likelier to use marijuana and twice as likely to smoke and drink than teens who attend religious services weekly. And, Califano wrote, “In 21st-century America, it is unlikely that teens are regularly attending religious services unless their parents are taking them.”

And that family dinner is vital. Califano wrote, “Young people who have dinner with their parents at least five times a week are far less likely to smoke, drink or use drugs than kids who have family dinners less than three times a week.” Other surveys have consistently shown how important family dinners can be.

And the reward for being a good parent: “A child who gets to age 21 without smoking, using illegal drugs or abusing alcohol is virtually certain never to do so.”

In other words, the best way to ensure that your teenagers won’t be substance abusers is to be a good parent.

—John F. Fink

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