Taking care of my boy
Taking care of my boy

Parents Can Help Teens and Young Adults Say "No" to Drugs

A comprehensive study with strategies that help prevent addictions.

Addictions March 1, 2021

by Alina Baltazar

The Text

Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. Proverbs 22:6 ESV 

Introduction

Illegal drug and alcohol use is a statistically normative process during late adolescence and young adulthood in the world today. About half of high school seniors in the U.S. have used an illicit drug once in their life. Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the U.S. and worldwide (Monitoring the Future Survey, 2013a). A vast majority (80%) of college students in the U.S. have used alcohol in their lifetime (Monitoring the Future Report, 2013b). Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) youths have lower rates of participating in these behaviors, but they are not immune to the culture around them. In a survey of 11,481 6-12th graders attending SDA schools in the North American Division back in 2000, 25% reported using alcohol in the last year, 10% had used marijuana, and 13% reported binge drinking (Five drinks or more in one sitting) (Gane & Kijai, 2015). 

Consequences of Adolescent Substance Use

There are three primary consequences to using substances. Most use is recreational, but there can be adverse health effects (even death) from one time or occasional use. Another consequence to recreational use is the tendency to have impaired judgement that leads to risky behaviors (e.g., driving while intoxicated, accidents, unsafe sex, and sexual assault). With prolonged substance abuse, research has found increased incidents of lung cancer, heart disease, liver disease, and breast cancer. With regular use there comes the risk of developing an addiction. With addiction the substance becomes one of the most important things in a person’s life, causing problems at school, work, and with relationships. An addiction is hard to quit, even as consequences pile up (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2016). 

Impact of Substance Abuse on Adolescent Development

Teens are especially vulnerable to substance use consequences. Adolescence is a very important time in human development. It is a time when teens are gaining more independence, are mostly physically developed, but executive functioning which dictates ability to be aware of long-term consequences, is the last to develop in the brain. Adolescents are more focused on pleasure and overestimate their ability to handle consequences. When youth start abusing drugs, it actually stunts their emotional and even cognitive development. The age at which they start also has an impact on their development. The earlier they start, the most likely they will be addicted and suffer long-term consequences (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2016). With these alarming statistics, what can parents do during a time when they feel they are losing control of their children? 

Preventive Strategies

Parental Bonding as Prevention

The role a parent plays in preventing substance use starts in the very early stage. Bonding between parents and children begins at birth. It does not come naturally to all parents, but it has a significant relation to child development. Attachment is associated with the expression and recognition of emotions as well as interpersonal functioning (Thorberg & Lyvers, 2010). Research has reported emotional regulation difficulties in substance use disorders and addiction has been considered an attachment disorder (Thorberg & Lyvers, 2010). Bonding also helps improve behavioral outcomes. A close parent/child bond can help motivate the child to cooperate with their parent because they want to please their parent who they believe cares for them (Baltazar, 2015). 

Parental Modeling

Whether or not we want them to, children watch what family members do. It is hard to say “do what I say, not what I do”. If parents, older siblings, or even grandparents use substances, youth are more likely to use them too (Cubbins & Klepinger, 2007). It becomes the normal thing to do, part of the family identity. Of course, the opposite is also true. In a study of SDA college students, using focus groups, this is what was reported: “If my parents didn’t use, I guess I won’t either” (Baltazar, 2015). When family members have used, having an honest conversation helps, especially regarding consequences (Baltazar, 2015). 

Sibling Relationships

The sibling relationship is also potentially protective. Siblings offer one of the first and most important peer relationships in an individual’s life (Heppner, 2014). Children spend more time with their siblings than with their parents. Siblings’ bonds depend upon their culture. In some cultures siblings may have a close relationship, in other cultures it is not as important for a family unit (Heppner, 2014). According to the Harvard Study of Adult Development, the longer we can sustain close sibling relationships in adulthood, the more it can benefit and protect us emotionally (Heppner, 2014). 

Extended Family

The importance of the extended family will vary from culture to culture. Grandparents and other family members such as aunts and uncles can play a significant role in both a family’s economic and social function. In every culture the extended family can provide a protective role in providing support to parents by assisting with the care of children, monitoring teenagers, being positive role models, passing on values, and showing love for children and youth in the family. Grandparent substance using norms were one of the strongest predictors of intention to use substances, in a population of American Indian youth (Martinez, Ayers, Kulis, & Brown, 2015). 

Religious Upbringing

By raising children in a religious home, there are many protective factors that come into play. Youth raised in a home with a religious affiliation had lower rates of drug use (Cubbins & Klepinger, 2007). Research has found church attendance, close relationship with God, personal devotions, and being involved in church related activities decreased substance use (McBride, 2012). In addition, church is a good place to find positive peers who are less likely to use substances themselves, though not a guarantee. 

Religion also teaches values that relate to minimizing or abstinence of substance use. Some religions teach about these values more than others. The Seventh-day Adventist church teaches the value of taking care of the body because it is the temple of the Lord. In a survey of Seventh-day Adventist college students, the statement, “God wants me to take care of my body by avoiding alcohol and drugs”, was reflected in the 25% of variance in last year alcohol use and actually decreased the chance of regular alcohol consumption by 60% (Baltazar, 2015). 

Ways Parents Can Aid in Spiritual Development

According to Habenicht (1994) there are steps parents can take to strengthen their child’s relationship with the Lord.

  • When there is a close bond between the parent and child, the child is more likely to believe in a loving heavenly Father.
  • Similar to the benefits of role modeling temperance, modeling personal devotions, church attendance, and living a moral life are standards that children are likely to follow.
  • When parents participate in religious communities it gives children a community they can lean on and a sense of security.
  • Research has found many benefits to family worship. It is a time for families to spend time together, express their faith, and encourage spiritual development.
  • Parents also should encourage individual religious practices in children (e.g. personal prayer and devotions).
  • Since religion and spirituality can be complex concepts difficult for children to grasp, it is helpful to have an open dialogue to help answer any questions they may have.
  • A great way for a parent to express their faith and help a child to internalize theirs is service to others. 

Parental Monitoring

Monitoring is the parent being aware of where the child is, their activities when they are out, and communication of these concerns to the child. The National Survey on Drug Abuse of 2008 reports parents who monitor their children’s behavior and help with their homework decrease illicit drug use by about 50%. Mother not knowing how I spend my spare time related to greater regular alcohol use among Seventh-day Adventist college students (Baltazar, 2015). For parental monitoring to be effective rules should be clearly stated, consistently enforced, and punishment reasonable, swift and sure. 

Parental Involvement and Conflict

Positive involvement is the parent’s active participation in the child’s life when it comes to activities and school work. Parental involvement has been found to decrease substance use in adolescents and college age young adults. In a study of adolescents living in rural Idaho, USA, this answer: “If I had a personal problem I could ask my mom or dad for help,” was statistically related to lower substance use (Baltazar, et al., 2012). If positive parental involvement is preventative in adolescent substance use, then the opposite is also true. Family conflict was significantly associated with an increased risk of substance use disorders (Skeer, et al., 2009). 

Communication

It is important to communicate clear expectations regarding substance use. Clear communication was the only statistically significant parental influence on adolescent alcohol use in one study (Miller-Day, 2010). In a survey of Adventist college students, feeling comfortable talking to mother about drugs and alcohol decreased regular alcohol use by 25% (Baltazar, 2015). A participant in a qualitative study of Adventist college students summarizes it best, “I think it comes down to, when parents give good reasons why we shouldn’t be doing it, not just enforcing a bunch of rules that don’t have any substance or background to them, so, actually having rationale for the rules, or the things that parents try to implement to their kids”. 

Parenting Styles

Maccoby and Martin (1983) proposed there are four main parenting styles. Authoritative parenting is a more modern style of parenting commonly practiced in North American and European countries. Authoritative parents typically are nurturing, affectionate, set boundaries, and have open communication with their children. Authoritarian parenting is a more traditional parenting style where parents are strict, inflexible, and have high expectations for their children. Permissive parenting is also a more modern style where parents are nurturing, affectionate, but have few or inconsistent boundaries. Permissive parents prefer to take the role of “friend” with their children. Uninvolved parents are generally emotionally detached, self-absorbed, and have inconsistent or no boundaries. 

Parenting Styles Influence on Substance Abuse

Research has examined the role parenting styles has on youth substance use behavior. Children raised with authoritative parents usually grow up to be independent, socially successful, and respectful of authority. Though permissive parenting may help with parent/child bonding, teens follow easily into peer pressure of drug and alcohol abuse. They feel their parents do not care about their substance use. Authoritarian parenting style adolescents will give into peer pressure in order to gain positive validation, even if the adolescent is fully aware of the consequence (Wood et al., 2004 and American Academy of Pediatrics, 2015). 

Family Meals

Traditionally family meals have been a part of all human cultures. Research consistently shows that having four or more family dinners per week significantly lower rates of substance abuse, sexual activity, violence and suicide ideation, victimization, obesity, and higher rates of safety behavior (e.g. wearing a helmet and seatbelt) (Matthews, et al., 2012). 

How do family meals work? They can be faith building. For example when prayer/grace is said at the beginning of the meal. The meal is an opportunity for a parent to role modeling healthy eating styles and self-control. It also provides an opportunity to monitor a child’s daily activities and upcoming schedule. While families are eating they are also communicating between bites, which is a benefit that was mentioned earlier. The family meal is another way to stay involved in a child’s life and show their parent cares about them. However, family meals only work if the experience is pleasant. 

International Perspective

There is some slight variation on the role parents play in preventing substance use around the world and among different cultural groups. The following are a sampling of such studies. Dutch and Norwegian parents feel it is their responsibility to be a good example and set rules regarding substance use (van der Sar, et al., 2014). Among rural African American adolescents having family members who did not use substances, being raised by parents, spending afternoons with parents after school, having parents who talk to youth about dangers of substance use, and having parents who disapprove of child using were considered protective factors (Myers, 2013). In a study of Mexican-American adolescents, having family obligation values is associated with less substance use (Telzer, et al., 2014). Though there are some differences, the role of modeling, parental involvement, setting rules, open and clear communication, and family bonding have been found to be a universal benefit. 

Hope for Single Parents

Family forms have been changing in recent decades with 40% of children who will live in a home without two parents. Because of high divorce rates and children born out of wedlock, the nuclear family of two parents and children is no longer the norm. Children growing up in single parent households have higher rates of academic problems, more likely to become sexually active, commit illegal acts, and use illegal drugs at young ages. This is probably due to disrupted parent/child bonding and overwhelmed single parents which leads to difficulties with communication, involvement, and supervision. Family disruption is particularly harmful during adolescent years (Antecol & Bedard, 2007) 

When parents separate, children still need exactly what they needed before the separation. They need a secure emotional base, routine, protection, encouragement to learn, and the support of a trusting, loving parent. Successful single-parenting tips:

  • Make time for one on one time with their children
  • Show an interest in the lives of their children and their exhibited behavior and attitudes
  • Make good use of family networks and mentoring programs
  • Have a positive co-parenting relationship 

Tips for Blended Families

Children don’t necessarily stay in single-parent households indefinitely. According to the 2000 census 67% of families are blended. There are many types of family that exist in today’s society, each important to the upbringing of any child. Here are some successful blended family tips: • Give it time – 4 years on average • Take time to build relationships • Be flexible with roles • Start new traditions Braithwaite, Baxter, & Harper (1998) 

Mental Health and Substance Abuse

Drug use in teens frequently overlaps with mental health problems. These positive parenting strategies are also helpful in supporting good mental health. Sometimes it is hard to know which came first, the drug problem or the mental illness. Many use substances to self-medicate their symptoms of depression, mood swings, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, and anxiety. Substance abuse itself can lead to mental illness, symptoms of depression, insomnia, mood swings, and difficulty concentrating. Even when parents do everything they can, there is a strong genetic component to mental illness. Depression, anxiety, ADHD, bipolar, borderline personality disorder, and PTSD (trauma) are linked to substance abuse. If a child has symptoms of these disorders, seek professional help, your child’s life may depend on it! Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website has a link to find resources near you. https://findtreatment. samhsa.gov/ Pediatricians and local community mental health centers are a resource as well. 

In conclusion, research has found the following roles parents play in preventing substance use/abuse in adolescents:

  • Positive attachment/bonding
  • Role modeling
  • Religious upbringing
  • Monitoring/supervision
  • Parental Involvement
  • Clear and open communication
  • Frequent family dinners
  • Authoritative parenting

There are no guarantees, but these can decrease the chances. 

Questions

  • What do you believe your parents did that helped prevent your substance use?
  • What could they have done better?
  • What have you done as a parent to prevent your children from using?
  • What could you do better as a parent?
  • How can you be of support to other parents? 

About the Author

Alina Baltazar, PhD, LMSW, CFLE is Associate Professor and MSW program Director, of the Social Work Department at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, USA. 

References 

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