By Joseph A. Califano, Jr.
The annual back-to-school surveys of The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University seek to identify situations and characteristics that increase or decrease the risk that a teen will smoke, drink, get drunk, use illegal drugs or abuse prescription drugs. This year’s CASA* survey of teens and their parents focused on how what parents do—and don’t do—influence the risk of substance abuse by their 12- to 17-year-old children.
The results are disturbing. Although virtually all mothers and fathers are concerned about the challenges of raising their kids, many do not realize how certain of their actions affect the likelihood that their children will become substance abusers. Many are not willing to take actions to prevent placing their children at higher risk of substance abuse.
Compared to the time when they were growing up, almost 9 out of 10 parents surveyed (84%) said that in these days it is harder to keep teenagers safe, and 3 of 4 parents (72%) said it is harder to raise a teen “of good moral character.” With this in mind, why are there so many parents who either don’t appreciate the impact of their actions on their children’s vulnerability to substance abuse or who don’t try harder?
Teens whose parents are “hands on”—engaging themselves in their teens’ day-to-day lives, relaxing with them, having frequent family dinners, supervising them, establishing standards of behavior, instilling a sense of the importance of religion in their children and setting positive examples of healthy behavior—are much less likely to smoke, drink or use drugs.
Many parents are doing a good job in raising their children. But this year’s CASA survey uncovered problem parents who enable (some even encourage) their 12- to 17-year-olds to use tobacco, alcohol and illegal prescription drugs. By their action and inaction, and by failing to become part of the solution, these parents become part of the problem of teen alcohol and drug abuse.
This year’s survey identified as problem parents those who:
- fail to monitor their children’s leaving their home and hanging out on school nights (Monday through Thursday)
- fail to keep away from their children their own dangerous and addictive prescription drugs, like painkillers and stimulants
- fail to address the problem of drugs in their children’s school
- set a bad example
“It’s 10 p.m. Do you know where your child is?”
Some 46% of 12- to 17-year-olds—compared to only 14% of their (unknowing or disingenuous) parents—said they typically left home to hang out with friends on school nights.
Not knowing where your kid is and what your kid is up to on a school night is risky business. Why? Because the later teens are hanging out with friends on school nights, the likelier it is that drug and alcohol use will be going on among them. Half of those teens who come home after 10:00 p.m. say that is the case, as do almost 1/3 of those who come home between 8:00 and 10:00 p.m.
Parents as Passive Pushers
Some parents become “passive pushers” by leaving around the house addictive prescription drugs like OxyContin and Vicodin, making them easily available to their children. Among kids who abuse prescription drugs to get high, 34% say they get them from their homes; another 31% say they get them from their friends. Since it’s fair to assume that a third of those friends in turn get the drugs from their homes, it’s likely that for almost half of kids abusing addictive prescription drugs, the pills are coming out of the family medicine cabinet.
These kids tend to think prescription drugs are safer than drugs bought from street dealers since these drugs come from a pharmacy and mom and dad use them. A few decades ago, parents used to lock their liquor cabinets; perhaps the time has come for them to lock their medicine cabinets, or at least keep track of the number of pills there.
Pessimistic and Naïve Parents
Almost all parents—including those who believe that drugs are used, kept and sold at their child’s school—say it is important that their teen’s school is drug-free. Yet, of the almost half of parents who say their children are in drug-infested schools, only 39% believe the goal of making their child’s school drug free is realistic.
Not surprisingly, in view of this parental attitude, 1 in 5 middle schoolers and almost 2/3 of high schoolers attend schools where drugs are used, kept and sold. Research consistently demonstrates that compared to kids at drug-free schools, those at drug-infested schools are 3 times more likely to smoke marijuana and get drunk in a typical month, and twice as likely to smoke and drink. Nevertheless, 1/3 of parents believe that the presence of illegal drugs in their teen’s school does not make it any more likely that their child will try them.
These pessimistic and naïve parents should not accept drug-infested schools as inevitable, any more than they would tolerate asbestos-infested schools as an acceptable risk for their children. State laws require that parents send their children to middle and high schools. These parents should demand that the state remove drugs from schools. No government should require parents to send their children to schools where drugs are used, kept and sold.
Prescription Drugs and Marijuana
The ready availability of illicit substances puts an extra burden on parents to stay engaged with their teens. Availability is the mother of use and, for most teens, prescription drugs and marijuana are as easy to get as candy.
Each year we ask teens which of these is easiest to buy: cigarettes, beer, marijuana or prescription drugs. For the first time in the history of CASA’s survey, more teens said prescription drugs were easier to buy than beer. The proportion of teens who say prescription drugs are easiest to buy jumped by 46% since 2007.
Marijuana is more available than ever, with 23% of teens able to get the drug in an hour or less, and 42% of teens able to get it in a day or less. The survey reveals a 35% increase over last year in the number of teens who can get marijuana in an hour or less, and a 14% increase over last year in teens who can get the drug in a day or less.
From 2007 to 2008—in just 1 year—we saw an increase of 1.4 million teens who can buy marijuana in an hour or less (4.4 vs. 5.8 million), and an increase of 1.1 million teens who can buy marijuana in a day or less (9.5 vs. 10.6 million). In this same year, the population of 12- to 17-year-olds decreased by almost half a million.
More than 2/3 of 17-year-olds can get marijuana in a day or less. Half of 16- and 17-year-olds say that among teens their age, smoking marijuana is more common than smoking cigarettes.
A Mom and Pop Operation
Preventing substance abuse among teens is primarily a mom-and-pop operation. Every mother and father should ask, “Am I doing the parenting essential to help my child negotiate the difficult teen years free of tobacco, alcohol and other drugs?”
Most important are the ABC’s of setting a good example: not smoking or using illegal drugs, not abusing alcohol or prescription drugs. The saddest revelation of this year’s survey was that a quarter of 12- to 17-year-olds knew parents of friends or classmates who used marijuana, and 10 percent knew parents of friends or classmates who smoked pot with teens.
All parents should monitor their children on school nights, keep dangerous prescription drugs out of their children’s reach, demand that their children’s schools be drug free and be engaged in their child’s life.
There are no more powerful examples of parental engagement than getting a teen involved spiritually and having family dinners. Teens who are religiously involved and who have frequent family dinners are at much lower risk of using and abusing substances. Mom and pop are key here. Compared with teens who attend religious services weekly—whether Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim—those who never attend such services are 3 times likelier to use marijuana and twice as likely to smoke and drink. In 21st- century America, it is unlikely that teens are regularly attending religious services unless their parents are taking them.
And what a difference dinner makes! Young people who have dinner with their parents at least 5 times a week are far less likely to smoke, drink or use drugs than kids who have family dinners less than 3 times a week.
The payoff for good parenting is enormous: A child who gets to age 21 without smoking, using illegal drugs or abusing alcohol is virtually certain never to do so. In this day and age, few, if any, children are going to make it through the turbulent decade from age 11 to 21 without engaged parents. If parents are not part of the solution, they become part of the problem.
Joseph A. Califano Jr. is the Founding Chair and President of The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. He was Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare from 1977 to 1979 and Chief White House Aide for Domestic Affairs under President Lyndon Johnson.
Appeared in America magazine on October 27, 2008
*The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University is neither affiliated with, nor sponsored by, the National Court Appointed Special Advocate Association (also known as "CASA") or any of its member organizations with the name of "CASA."