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We now know that the “Just Say No” campaign of the 1980’s did not work. Substance use prevention is about so much more than simply telling kids not to use alcohol or other drugs. Instead, there are a myriad of protective and risk factors throughout a child’s life that influence their likelihood to misuse substances.

  As a child grows, attachment changes and should be blended with age-appropriate limits and support as a parent continues to be emotionally attuned to the child and protects their safety. This is where “authoritative” parenting comes in.  

It all begins with a “secure attachment” and continues with “authoritative” parenting. One of the biggest protective factors against substance use is a “secure attachment” relationship between parent (or primary caregiver) and child. A secure attachment is so important that it has been referred to as the “anti-drug”. Parents foster this attachment beginning in infancy. In the toddler years, “authoritative parenting”, which blends a secure attachment with age appropriate limits and support, is the most effective approach to parenting. In later years, this approach is an especially strong protective factor against substance misuse. 



Emotional responsiveness is crucial to brain development, cognitive and emotional development, the stress regulation system, and authentic human connection. Children develop a “secure attachment” when their primary caregiver is: 

• Involved

• Attentive 

• Responsive 

• Sensitive

• Warm

• Loving

• Emotionally available

POSITIVE EFFEFCTS OF A SECURE ATTACHMENT.  Children with a secure attachment history are more likely to develop a greater sense of self-agency, better emotional regulation, higher self-esteem, better coping under stress, more positive engagement in the preschool peer group, closer friendships in middle childhood, better coordination of friendships and social groups in adolescence, more trusting, non-hostile romantic relationships in adulthood, greater social competence, more leadership qualities, and happier and better relationships with parents and siblings. All of these in turn are protective factors against substance misuse down the road.


This approach combines qualities of “responsiveness” and “demandingness” or lovingness and high expectations. 


Responsiveness, or nurturance, refers to the warmth, love, understanding, and empathy that a parent offers a child. Responsive parents are attuned to their child’s perspective, feelings, needs and abilities, taking age and temperament into account.


Demandingness, or control, refers to parents setting age-appropriate limits, boundaries, and expectations, taking into account their child’s temperament and developmental skills. Rules are discussed and explained, preferably ahead of time, which promotes the child’s ability to reason rather than blindly obey. Discipline and power-assertion are last resorts, best reserved for issues of safety. 


“Authoritarian” parenting involves more control and less nurturance. An authoritarian approach is “my way or the highway.” Authoritarian parents value rules, obedience, and conformity, and they tend to be punitive, inflexible, and controlling. The child’s growing independence is not encouraged and their autonomy is restricted. Authoritarian parents do not show interest in their child’s point of view, and project an attitude that they know what’s best. This often creates increasing conflict, resulting in rebellion and sneaking around as the child grows.


“Permissive”parenting, is high in nurturance but low in control. Parenting is child-centered to the point of indulgence, offering a high degree of freedom but few expectations or boundaries. Permissive parents are more focused on their child’s happiness, or they may view setting boundaries as an infringement on the child’s “rights” (a position popular in the sixties). This approach can also describe the classic helicopter parent, which prevents a child from developing their own skills, advocating for themselves or problem solving on their own. 


Children raised by permissive parents tend to be immature, with little self-reliance or self-confidence, and personal responsibility. Lacking their own strong internal compass, they are also more easily vulnerable to peer influences.

“Indifferent” parenting is low on both nurturance and control. These parents are neglectful and “checked out.” They are self-centered and take little interest in the child. Children raised by indifferent parents have poor psychological adjustment, second only to hostile or abusive parenting. With little parental oversight or monitoring, these children tend to precociously experiment with sex, drugs and alcohol. They are more likely to be involved in delinquent behavior.


Why does authoritative parenting work? Research supports the effectiveness of “authoritative parenting” for all different kinds of families, regardless of their ethnicity, income, education, or structure. It promotes healthy development. When children have a strong attachment, they naturally want to be more aligned with the parent. 


A discussion- and explanation-based approach promotes intellectual development and develops moral judgment and empathy. Respecting the child’s perspective helps a child develop their own thoughts and ideas. In this way, a child grows an internal compass of their own — one that will guide them when a parent isn’t around.


For more information about how to foster secure attachment and be an authoritative parent, check out our pages on How to Talk to Your Child About Substance Use and Tips on Setting Boundries and Monitoring Your Child.

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