National Survey Highlights Parents’ Role in Protecting Teens From Substance Use
Parents of adolescents can play a valuable role in protecting their teens from substance use, a new national survey by Center on Addiction finds. Although parents often pull back from being involved in their older teens’ lives, the survey found teens say parents and caregivers remain the greatest influence on them, even in high school.
“As teens get older, parents tend to think they should give their kids more independence, but there are ways to do that while still protecting them,” said Linda Richter, PhD, Director of Policy Research and Analysis at Center on Addiction, who authored the report. “It’s counterintuitive, but although older teens seem to resist input from their parents, it’s a time when they need parents the most.”
The national survey of adolescents aged 12-17 found that 55.8% of teens said they believe the most common reason some kids their age choose not to drink or use drugs is their parents – either because they think their parents would disapprove, or because they don’t want to get in trouble. In addition, 55.5% described their relationship with their parents as “excellent.”
“I was surprised by how positively teens saw their relationship with their parents—it was quite encouraging,” Dr. Richter said. “This suggests parents have a lot of power to influence their teens in a positive way.”
Older Teens, Higher Risk
The survey found that drugs, alcohol and nicotine are prevalent and accessible in teens’ lives, particularly as they enter high school. The survey did not ask teens directly about their own substance use, but asked about friends’ substance use—a risk factor for their own future use. The survey found 23.7% of teens said they have at least one friend who uses drugs. Nearly three times as many older than younger teens reported having at least one friend who uses drugs.
The survey found a big jump in risk factors for substance use between middle school (ages 12 to 14) and high school (ages 15 to 17). These risk factors include:
- Having at least a few close friends who drink beer or other alcohol, smoke cigarettes or vape, use marijuana or misuse prescription drugs.
- Personally knowing someone addicted to nicotine, alcohol, marijuana or prescription pain relievers.
- Witnessing illegal drugs used in real life.
- Being able to get illicit drugs like heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine within a day if they wanted to.
- Relying on sources of information about drugs that can be considered unreliable, such as other teens, social media or the Internet.
- Not being worried regardless of how often a friend uses e-cigarettes or marijuana.
Tips for Parents
“Parents feel more comfortable monitoring their kids when they’re in middle school than when they’re in high school,” said Dr. Richter. “But we found it’s more important than ever to be involved and talk with your kids when they’re in high school. The key is to be well-informed, and not seem out of touch—otherwise, teens will tune you out.”
Monitoring teens’ whereabouts, who they spend time with, what they do during their free time, as well as their social media account activities are important ways to reduce their risk of substance use, according to Dr. Richter. “We found that regardless of the number of risk factors a teen reported, high levels of parental monitoring were associated with significantly reduced odds that teens would say they have friends who use drugs,” she said. “Likewise, monitoring was associated with significantly reduced odds of reporting intentions to use drugs in the future, regardless of the number of risk factors a teen reported.” She advises parents to be upfront with teens about monitoring their social media accounts. “Tell them you’re looking at their social media not because you’re nosy, but because you want to ensure their safety,” she said.
To reduce the risk of teen substance use, Dr. Richter also recommends that parents:
- Eat meals with their children as frequently as possible.
- Remove distractions during meals and other family activities.
- Take an interest in their children’s interests.
- Know their children’s friends and whereabouts.
- Be well informed and up-to-date about the types of addictive substances their children might encounter.
- Have frequent, open, and honest conversations with their children about substance use and addiction, but also about their interests, their friends, their hopes and plans, concerns and fears.
- Set clear and fair rules and stick to them.
- Seek help early for signs of risk from a trusted health professional.
“Parents so often hear about the importance of giving their teens freedom as they grow up,” said Dr. Richter. “While granting more independence is certainly important, this survey shows how critical it is to keep being involved and engaged.”