Dialogue & personal example work best for parents in drug talks with teens

February 11, 2005

Parents can more effectively advise teens about alcohol and drug use if, first, they try dialogue instead of lecture and, second, they set an everyday example, rather than give the one-time drug sermon, according to a Penn State researcher.

Drug talks can work best when parents and teens routinely share insights on the benefits and risks of drug use, says Dr. Michelle Miller-Day, associate professor of communication arts and sciences. One tactic would be for parents to ask teens what they hope to gain from use of alcohol, drugs and tobacco (e.g. relaxation, especially around the opposite sex; greater peer acceptance). The parent can then suggest wholesome alternatives to achieve the same end.

These tools for a healthy lifestyle include specific, practical advice about drinking and driving, coping with peer pressure, and remembering to call for a ride when needed, Miller-Day notes. Once parents and teens learn to communicate on a regular basis about drugs, then the targeted drug talk becomes more helpful, especially before events such as a prom or dance when teens face stronger temptations to use alcohol beverages or take drugs.

Miller-Day and Dr. Ann H. Dodd, assistant dean in the University's College of Agricultural Sciences, are co-authors of the paper, "Toward a Descriptive Model of Parent-Offspring Communication About Alcohol and Other Drugs," recently published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

The Penn State study examined the taped narratives of 75 college students regarding talks with a parent about alcohol and drugs. For each of the students, a single parent was also interviewed. In the case of one of the students, both parents were interviewed, making 151 respondents in all. Both students and parents were asked to recall the methods used by parents in broaching the subjects of drugs with their teen children and to weigh their effectiveness.

In the study, 44 percent of the respondents (66 out of 151) recalled that parents talked about the potential health and legal risks of drug use, with some parents even warning about the chances of incarceration for serious drug offenses.

Miller-Day says, "Over two-thirds of the persons interviewed reported integrating ongoing socialization efforts into the fabric of their everyday lives as opposed to the more targeted one-shot 'drug talks.' "

For parents, it is critical to hone both listening and observation skills in discussions with their children about drugs or other issues faced by young people, the researchers note. Parents can significantly boost their credibility in drug talks with teens by offering personal examples, their own testimonials being the best.

Miller-Day says, "In our study, parents often provided accounts of how their own life or the lives of friends and family members were affected by drugs or drug use. Stories of a relative's alcohol-related death, liver failure, or drug abuse and recovery support claims of the harmful effects of drugs."

With younger teens and teens still at home, parents can exercise greater power in monitoring and sanctioning their children's choices about drugs. Often this means a no-tolerance policy, with rules clearly spelling out rewards and punishments for behaviors involving alcohol and drugs. Penalties can include loss of allowance, loss of car privileges, strict curfews, and drug and alcohol counseling sessions with a professional, the researchers say.

The strategy for drug talks changes once teen children move out of the house or go to college, Miller-Day says. At that point, parents would do better to encourage teens to use their own judgment; require them to pay for their own alcohol, cigarettes and over-the-counter and prescription drugs; and accept the consequences for use of those drugs.

"There is no one right way to conduct parent-child discussions about drugs and drug use," says the Penn State researcher. "Parents must consider their own experiences, their goals for the drug talk, and the developmental level of the child. But preliminary evidence suggests that the most effective pathway for influencing drug use among late adolescent youth is ongoing discussion, by both parents.

"This much is clear -- connecting with children about drugs and drug use is an essential part of parenting," she adds. "Parents may or may not be anti-drug, but they should talk with their children about alcohol, tobacco and other drug use, and they should combine their talk with a concentrated effort to listen."

Penn State

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