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Teen drug use may not be the issue decades ago, but many adolescents continue to use and overuse substances, especially alcohol and marijuana. According to the CDC, at least half of all US students between the 9th and 12th grade are estimated to have tried marijuana, and two-thirds of 12th graders have had alcohol. Estimates of recreational or illegal prescription drug use among 12th graders range from 2 to 10 percent.

Parents who might feel powerless over their teen’s decision-making and fear that they cannot prevent or stop their child’s drug use should know that the relationship between parents and their child is one of the strongest bonds in the child’s life. Even among teens, parents wield enormous influence not only with their words and rules but especially with their actions and habits.

Teen substance abuse prevention starts at home. Research shows that parental influence is an often more significant factor in a teen’s behavior and relationship towards drugs than peer influence. Parents play a critical role in preparing their children for the realities and risks of drug use.

Teen Substance Abuse Prevention and Parental Influence

One of the biggest contributors to a teen’s risk of drug abuse is the quality and nature of their relationship with their parents and the behavior and habits their parents engage in. Positive family influences reduce the risk of drug use, and conversely, negative family influences greatly increase it. Examples of what count as important factors for family influence includes:

    • Consistent rules and consequences (i.e., consistent boundaries, clear differences between acceptable and unacceptable behavior, rules applying to the whole family).
    • Family bonding and time spent together.
    • Family monitoring and its influence on teen peer choices (who your child hangs out with).
    • Family conflict (and lack thereof).

Related factors that tend to introduce further stressors – such as being preoccupied with work and unable to engage in family life, poor socioeconomic conditions, ease of access/opportunity – each plays a role in how family life, particularly the relationship with one’s parents, influences a teen’s choices regarding drug use and peer choice.

Peer pressure, while relevant, is also influenced by parental relationships. Parents play a role in who a teen tends to choose as friends, and the likelihood of engaging in drug use is higher among peers who already use drugs and do so regularly in a social context. One of the only factors that potentially becomes less important over time is family bonding.

This drops off once a teen becomes 18 years old on average. This does not mean parents should stop bonding with their adult children, but it does mean that it has less impact on their child’s behavior. Other factors, such as consistent boundaries and rules, family conflict, and parent behavior, remain important.

Parenting style also plays a role. Yes, rules are important, but parents who demanded obedience over understanding and affection (an authoritarian approach) saw higher drug use rates than authoritative or permissive parenting styles. Neglectful parenting (a complete lack of rules) also significantly raised the risk.

Teens Reflect Parental Opinions and Actions

One of the most important targets for effective teen substance abuse prevention is one’s own relationships with drugs. Decades of research point out time and time again that children and teens effectively mirror or mimic their parent’s choices regarding drug use and substance abuse. If a parent wants to stop their teen from drinking, smoking, or taking pills recreationally, one of the most effective ways to do so is to exhibit the kind of behavior they expect to see in their teens – consistently and in the long-term.

Research suggests that children begin to experiment with health risk behaviors as early as age 10 in vulnerable children, including substance use, and are likely to mimic what they see around them – whether in the home, at school, or between friends or even on TV. Consider your own relationship to drugs and how you use them to cope – even if it means cracking open a cold beer after a rough day at work. How often do you drink or smoke? And would you want your child to emulate your habits and behavior?

Choose Your Words and Lessons Carefully

Being a role model for your child does not guarantee that a teen stays away from drugs. There is more to it than just role modeling – parents need to take charge in educating their teens, using reliable sources of information, and ensuring that their teens understand the real dangers of drug use.

Misinformation and exaggerations only serve to hurt the cause here, especially in a day and age where most teens are even more capable than their parents when seeking out information. Your children will be able to refute what you tell them if it is not grounded in the facts. If they feel like you are lying to them, then your attempts at warning your teen about drugs may only serve to erode their trust in you.

Take an objective stance on the issue and address drug use by focusing on its health hazards and effects on the mind and body. Drive home the point that the use of drugs can quickly develop into substance abuse, especially in teens. Take the time to learn more about what certain drugs are, how they are produced and sold, and how your teen might be able to recognize and avoid them in the future.

Children and teens may be more likely to engage in risky behavior than adults. Still, many of them do not understand or know how prescription drugs can be just as dangerous as “street drugs” or how alcohol use and nicotine can be comparably addictive and ruinous at an early age to “hard drugs.”

Address Common Misconceptions and Harmful Tropes

No matter how hard a parent might try, teens will still be subjected to imagery and media promoting or glorifying drug use, whether as part of an artistic vision or a narrative trope. It is becoming harder and harder to manage and filter what media your teens consume, making it more important to educate them on contentious or difficult topics than ever before.

Without proper elucidation, teens might expect that everyone is supposed to drink and drink often, or that marijuana is harmless, or that prescription stimulants help a person study harder. These myths are harmful and common enough that they might negatively impact your teen’s decision-making down the line when you are not there to stop them.

Teen substance abuse prevention starts at home. A fact-based education, a strong parental bond, and role modeling are the key tenets of a good teen substance abuse prevention approach.