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Q&A on Common Parenting Approaches to Youth Substance Use

Q: I partied in high school, and even got a little crazy at times but I turned out just fine — so is it really a big deal for kids to drink alcohol and smoke pot?


A: Yes, it potentially can be a very big deal, given today's party scene. Levels of substance use, the kinds of drugs and our children’s environment are different and riskier than a generation ago. Many parents feel that as long as their teens don’t drive under the influence, are keeping up their grades, and extracurricular activities, it's okay to let teens blow off a little steam and have fun like they may have done in high school and college. Here's what parents need to be aware of and why they should not be complacent about adolescent substance use.

There are many different approaches on the issue of allowing substance use by adolescents in one's home. BTI's program is not concerned with letting your own child take a sip of wine or champagne at dinner or a celebration with parents present. Parents need to decide that issue on their own and that depends on each family's values, priorities and the type of child they have. It is a different matter, however, when it comes to other children who are not your own, and in particular throwing youth parties either allowing or turning a blind eye towards underage substance use. 


The goal is to delay use for your own child as long as possible and to create a healthy and safe environment for others in your community. This graph makes the case as to why each year of delay is so important. If your older teen begins using substances, the goal may switch from prevention to "harm reduction" and taking measures to promote moderation and safety. However, the research concludes that it is never wise to condone substance use.


With that in mind, here are common questions and answers based on the research out there and the experience we have on the issue of whether parents should allow underage substance use. 

Q: Isn’t there a lot less driving under the influence with Uber and “Designated Drivers”.


A: Yes, it is true that kids are generally less reckless than a generation ago with respect to drinking and driving. However, there are still alarming levels of driving under the influence among today’s teens.  Thanks to the efforts of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, so called “designated drivers" or “DDs” (which are teens who have agreed in advance to stay sober that evening and drive their friends around), and ride services such as Uber and Lyft, teens are more responsible and mindful about driving under the influence these days.


Yet, there is still too much driving under the influence of alcohol and especially cannabis, as some kids don’t think of driving high on weed is a big deal. In the most recent California Healthy Kids Survey, 38% of 11th grade students in the Tamalpais Union HS District (which includes five high schools in Southern and Central Marin County) admitted they had either driven themselves or been a passenger in a car with a friend who was under the influence. So that’s a very concerning statistic.

Q: Isn’t drinking alcohol and smoking pot a rite of passage that most kids are going to do, despite what parents say or do?


A: What you say and do still matters!


  • Clear expectations of non-use. Studies show that teens whose parents disapprove of their use of alcohol and other drugs are three times less likely to use these substances.


  • Many kids do not use substances. Healthy Kids Survey results show that not all high school kids use substances. The majority of 9th graders have not experimented with substances yet and by 11th grade, although a majority have done so, of those kids a majority have not used substances in the past 30 days. There is often a perception by other kids that “everyone is doing it” when that is not the case. It's just that those who are partying are often more vocal about it than those who are staying at home or staying sober.

  • Parental modeling matters. It's no coincidence that in areas (such as Marin County) where teens have high substance use rates, the adults in those communities have them too. Even though our teens do their best to pretend that they aren’t listening to us, we are the number one influence in our kids lives in terms of the values we hold, the rules we establish and the examples that we are. So the most important advice of all is to be mindful about your own substance use – because your kids are watching. 


  • Delay, delay, delay! The research is clear that every year of delay makes a difference later in life and that the earlier adolescents start, the more likely they will become addicted. So even if your child ends up using in high school, even one year of delay can help.


Q: What about the Europeans who allow drinking at younger ages and don’t make alcohol such a forbidden fruit?


A: There is a commonly held myth about the European model. In European countries such as France, Italy and Spain, alcohol is widely available and introducing children to it at a young age is believed to help them learn to drink responsibly. The thinking is that these countries do not experience the "binge-drinking" and other problems that the U.S. experiences. This is often used to support suggestions that the U.S. minimum drinking age should be lowered and parents should introduce their children to alcohol early. 


In reality, the U.S. cannot be directly compared with such different cultures. Traditionally in these European countries, drunkenness has not been accepted, alcohol is generally consumed with a meal, what they drink is different, and the night time economy is much less alcohol-focused than it is in the U.S. (i.e. restaurants and shops are open late).


Q: What about when I find out that my teen is using alcohol or drugs, and I can’t seem to do anything about it – should my parenting approach change?


A: Yes, your approach by necessity should transition from “prevention” to what is known as “harm reduction.” This doesn’t mean that parents should completely give up and condone their child’s substance use. Parents should continue to discourage use, stressing that their child’s brain is still developing, is negatively affected by substances and there are real risks of using. But parents should also emphasize moderation, safety and the precautions that should be taken. The problem is that many parents only discuss safety measures - and don't set clear expectations about non-use in the first place. "Harm Reduction" measures are discussed in more detail in our blog entitled "Now What? What to Do When Your Child is Drinking and Using Substances".

Statistics also reveal that European countries experience significant rates of harm from alcohol. Some European countries, such as the U.K., France, Italy and Spain, experience much higher rates of alcohol-caused chronic diseases and road crashes. ‘Le binge’ drinking or ‘beuverie express’ is an increasing problem in France, with particular concerns about drinking by young people. A phrase used elsewhere in Europe is ‘coma drinking’.


Q: When should I seek professional help?


A: When a child's substance use is impacting their life. It's time if grades drop, they are no longer participating in extracurricular sports, there have been harmful incidents, and their personality has changed. 


  • Different and more potent drugs. The potency of THC levels in today’s cannabis makes it a different drug, not only in smoked leaf form, but particularly in edibles and concentrates. Current THC levels can range from 16%-30% in leaf form. Concentrates, which can be "dabbed", can be 90% THC. By contrast, THC levels in the 1960s-1970s were 1-2%, and 4-7% in the 1980s-90s, and were no comparison to the levels in the products available in the current market.  And we don't yet know the effects of this, as researchers only study cannabis with THC levels up to 15%.

    Additionally, new prescription pills such as Adderall and Xanax are commonly misused today. Pills, 
    alcohol and cannabis are also combined, which is particularly dangerous. Extremely deadly substances such as Fentanyl are finding their way into street drugs these days. These substances were not around in our high school years.


  • An escape from stress. Data shows that rates of stress, anxiety and depression have skyrocketed in recent years. Partying for kids suffering from these symptoms can be not as much about having fun and getting up the nerve to talk to boy or girl at a party. Instead it is often a way to escape the modern day stressors of high school. Research shows that kids using substances to escape stress are at higher risk for long term abuse and their use is often more extreme.


Q: What kind of parenting works best?


A: “Authoritative” Parenting works best. The research shows that an engaged and "authoritative" parenting style - with bonding and boundaries - is most effective. By contrast, neither a permissive nor an "authoritarian" parenting style works well with children. An authoritative parent maintains a warm and connected relationship with their kids, sets reasonable rules and discusses their reasons for doing so. An authoritarian parent just says "NO - because I said so!" and is less connected and bonded with the child as a result.

Q: Isn’t it safer to allow teens to party at homes with parents present and ensure they get home safely?


A: It may be safer in the short term, i.e., for that evening only - but it is counter-productive in the long term and can lead to risky behavior. Many well-intentioned parents feel it is safer to let kids drink or smoke pot at home “under their roof” rather than out on the streets or at unsupervised homes. 


These parents reason that measures such as keeping the parties small or under control, and taking

precautions such as confiscating car keys, letting kids sleep over or ensuring safe rides home, will protect kids from risky behavior. Many parents look the other way on substance use, rationalizing that otherwise kids will just party elsewhere. Here’s why this approach is misguided:

  • It's against the law. First, it is illegal to host a party with underage substance use. Laws called Social Host Ordinances hold parents and teens who host such parties strictly responsible, imposing monetary fines and sometimes community service. In addition to civil fines, there can be substantial civil liability from lawsuits if something goes horribly wrong.

    Finally, there is potential criminal liability when adults are found to have provided substances to minors or “contributed to the delinquency of a minor”, which is a misdemeanor (and in some states it is even a felony) that can result in steep fines and jail time.


  • Research that providing alcohol or a place to use leads to riskier behavior.  Second, there is a significant body of research — in the form of an NIH meta-study of 22 other studies — that shows that children who are allowed to drink at home are more likely to drink elsewhere, to drink in larger quantities and to drink and drive. While throwing a party and
    taking precautions may keep your child safe for that evening, research shows this is counterproductive and unsafe in the long term. 


  • Allowing use by other children. Lastly, allowing your own child drink or use cannabis at home is a parent's prerogative and may work with your child.  But it is a very different matter to provide an environment for other kids to do so, especially when their parents are unaware. What you do in your home with other children in your community affects the kind of environment they are growing up in. Parents have a reasonable expectation that when their child is invited to your home, it will be a safe environment.

Q: Isn’t it better for teens to experiment and gain experience before college?

A: The majority of teens will experiment and have experience before college. By condoning substance use, however, parents may be setting their children up for riskier use. Some parents think that with experience in high school their kid smarter about substance use and won’t “go crazy” in college. The fact is that most kids still go a little crazy with their newfound freedom and do really dumb things in college, regardless of what they did or didn’t do in high school! Based on data from Healthy Kids Survey results, the majority of teens have experimented with substance use by the time they graduate from high school.


Q: Isn’t it better to teach kids to use

“responsibly” at home?


A: In most cases, this doesn’t work. A study of 1,050 pairs of mothers and elementary-aged children (Jackson et al., 2012) found that between 15% and 40% of mothers believed that allowing their children to sip alcohol can be protective in the future (e.g., making children less likely to drink as adolescents and more likely to refuse peer pressure). As the NIH study noted, “despite these beliefs, there is little research evidence to support the notion that it is even possible to ‘teach' children to drink alcohol responsibly." You may have that rare “rule following” kid that this works for. But most kids aren’t wired that way yet – their brains are wired for risk taking. They’re curious and don't want to miss out on the "fun" others are having.



  • Riskier behavior. The current party scene is very different than it was back in our day. It can take a while for parents to learn what’s really going on and how risky it can be. Kids today often go straight to handles of vodka for their first experimentation with alcohol rather than beer or wine. And they typically drink to get very, very drunk, some to the point of blacking out. Emergency Room transports are seen as rites of passage by some. None of this was common when we were teens, yet today this behavior is normalized.

Consider what the NIH study stated: "[A]mong college students, zero-tolerance messages conveyed by parents were more protective against alcohol use and consequences when compared with mixed messages or the absence of a message (Abar et al., 2012). A zero-tolerance approach was related to safer outcomes than other messages, even if students were already using alcohol. Although conducted with older adolescents, the findings are important to consider because they contradict the assumption that with the right communication, parents can socialize their children to alcohol use and reduce risky drinking in other settings."


All of these approaches are understandable, well intentioned and reasonable. But the research shows there are more effective approaches. And what you do as a parent can affect other children in your school and community.

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