Leader Blues

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

TOP STORY > >Drug abuse: Who is most at risk?

Leader staff writer

A child who gets through age 21 without smoking, abusing alcohol or using illegal drugs is virtually certain never to do so.
– Joseph A. Califano Jr., former U.S. Surgeon General.

Could keeping a teenager drug free be as simple as regularly sitting down to dinner as a family? Yes, say researchers who monitor patterns of family life and substance abuse.

Since 2002, the National Center on Addiction and Sub-stance Abuse (CASA) has studied the relationship between family dinners and substance abuse.

The results are striking. Compared with youngsters who have family dinners five or more times per week, those having fewer than three family dinners per week are three and a half times more likely to abuse prescription drugs or use marijuana or illegal drugs, and are also more likely to drink alcohol or smoke tobacco.

Teens who eat dinner often with family also have a more positive outlook about a drug-free future: 62 percent say they will never do drugs compared to 43 percent among those who infrequently have dinner with their families.

The surprising thing is, the vast majority of teens – 84 percent – say they prefer having dinner with their families rather than eating alone, shattering a stereotype held by many adults that teens loathe having to join them at the dinner table. For those kids who regularly have family meals, the percentage is even higher – 92 percent. Even 16- and 17-year-olds would rather eat with family than by themselves.

A high percentage of teens, 47 percent, feel that dinner is the best time to talk with parents about something important to them.

So, do these findings by researchers necessarily prove that family dinners reduce youth substance abuse or do they simply help describe families in which teen drug use and drinking is less likely?

According to mental health professionals who help teens with addiction problems, positive parental involvement is paramount to preventing the problem in the first place.

Teens most at risk of substance abuse are those who lack parental supervision and nurturing, are having difficulties in school, lack social skills or are anti-social or have aggressive tendencies, according to Rob Cunningham, director of Horizon Treatment Program, a counseling and guidance center in Fort Smith. Regular family meals are a way to connect with kids and them navigate daily stresses that otherwise may set them up for accepting pills, a drink or cigarette from a friend.

So, how do parents protect their children from harmful influences without clamping down on their lives so harshly that trust is destroyed and kids rebel?

Parents need to communicate clear standards and rules against use of tobacco, alcohol, and drug use. And they need to set a positive example by not using illegal drugs, alcohol, or tobacco and by being “judicious in the use of prescription and over-the-counter drugs,” says Cunningham.

Teens less likely to abuse drugs have parents “who know and communicate with their youth’s peers and the parents of peers,” Cunningham said. Parents must be able to “answer the questions of who, when, where and what of their children’s activities.”

Tony Thurman, superintendent of Cabot Public Schools, agrees. “It is imperative that parents stay involved and know exactly who their child is friends with no matter how old they are.” But, he observes, staying up on the social life of a teen is trickier these days, because some of it is happening in cyberspace.

“Social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace have made it even more challenging and dangerous since teens can now connect with negative influences without ever making personal contact,” Thurman notes. “It is my opinion that these networking sites have become a dangerous and negative outlet for many teenagers.”

Thurman cautions parents about how they discipline kids who experiment with alcohol, drugs, or tobacco.

“I highly recommend that parents be very careful about removing activities such as band, athletics, forensics, dance or other activities as a punitive measure,” he said.

“It is extremely important for students to find that supportive and positive peer group in which to interact and identify.”

Parents who fail to keep tabs on their teens’ school night socializing with friends add to the risk of their drinking, smoking or using drugs.

The risk increases with how late kids stay out. When kids stay out until after 10 p.m. on a school night, the presence of alcohol, marijuana or other drugs is likely, say 46 percent of teens surveyed by CASA. For kids home by 8 p.m., the likelihood is 29 percent.

But hanging out at a friend’s house is no guarantee that alcohol or drugs won’t be present. A quarter of teens surveyed by CASA said they know a parent of a peer who uses marijuana; 10 percent said that they know a peer’s parent who smokes marijuana with teens.

Rena Kinney, a recent high school graduate, says her parents’ approach helped her steer clear of alcohol, drugs, and drinking.

They set high expectations for her behavior, but allowed her some freedom to chart her own course.

“My parents are very, very strong Christians – it’s, ‘You don’t do drugs, you don’t drink.’ They told me, ‘You can try it, but you won’t like it. We can’t stop you from doing it.’ That they did not try to enforce it on me made it a lot easier. They never told me, ‘You can’t.’ Instead, they said, ‘We prefer that you don’t do that.’ Saying you can’t do something, to a teenager, you know, that just makes you be rebellious.”

As a result, Kinney avoided crowds that had a reputation for that kind of thing. “I tried to stay away from that – I was raised differently,” she said. “You could tell the kids who were doing drugs; it messed them up and I didn’t want that happening to me.”