Responsibility Begins at Home

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Last week, The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University released its 2009 National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse: Teens and Parents. For me, the headline was clear: Parents, Be Responsible.

I know from the many parent-teacher conferences I conducted when I was a high school history teacher that many parents despair that their children aren’t listening to them. The CASA study indicates that—at least on the issue of substance abuse—children aren’t just listening; they’re paying attention to their parents attitudes and behavior. Teens who say their parents believe that marijuana use is “not a big deal” are twice as likely to use the drug as those whose parents do believe it is a big deal. Teens that have seen their own parents get drunk are twice as likely to have gotten drunk themselves in a typical month than those who have not. And compared to teens who have never tried alcohol, teens who get drunk monthly are an astounding 18 times more likely to have tried marijuana.

Perhaps the most startling finding in the study was the impact of fathers on their children’s choices around substance use. Consider these stats: 65 percent of teens who say their father is OK with teen drinking have tried alcohol, while only 25 percent of those with a father who does not approve of teen drinking have. They are not only more likely to try alcohol but also to abuse it: 34 percent of teens who say their father is OK with teen drinking get drunk monthly as opposed to only 14 percent of those whose fathers disapprove. In fact, bad Dads seem to be worse than no Dads at all: only 41 percent of teens with no father in the home at all have tried alcohol as opposed to 65 percent of those with fathers who approve of teen drinking. Like Father, like son or daughter.

The message is clear: if teens think their parents think substance use is OK, or witness actions that speak louder than words when it comes to substance use, they’re likely to follow suit. If we’re going to get a grip on teen substance abuse, responsibility will indeed have to begin at home. As students return to school, it is important to remember the example that parents set may trump peer pressure.

There are numerous federal resources to assist parents on this critical issue. Check out Parents. The Anti-Drug and Web sites sponsored by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Kevin Jennings
Assistant Deputy Secretary, Office of Safe & Drug Free Schools