Parents of a teenage boy or girl are shocked to find that school grades are in decline thanks to an established pattern of drinking, smoking marijuana, or other substance abuse. Should they blame themselves or not?

Parents versus peers
Why do teens get so involved in drug abuse that they undermine their chances of academic and occupational success? Ask a peer what is happening, and they generally converge on the same explanation. Johnny is a drug user because he hangs out with a druggie clique who spend much of their day in a wasted state.

The relevance of the peer group for drug use was one of the key conclusions drawn from early research on cigarette smoking. Children were admittedly more likely to smoke if one of their parents smoked, but the smoking habits of their friends were a better predictor of teen smoking (Rowe, 1994). The same applies to other drugs.

Why teens frequently conform to the drug use habits of their high school friends has a relatively simple answer. They do it to fit in. If the habit is strongly discouraged by parents, then it is that much more irresistible, because it demonstrates rebellion and the strength of commitment to their friends. However, parents may trump peers when it comes to serious drug abuse.

Parents trump peers
If parents succeed in maintaining an affectionate relationship with their teen - which can certainly be challenging at times - then they probably do not need to worry so much that their kid will develop troubling drug habits. There are several reasons for this claim.

1. Children who are close to their parents generally want to succeed in school and are unlikely to ruin their chances by frequent use of mind altering substances at school.
2. Teens are known to others by the company they keep and parents are responsible for knowing what sort of friends their kids have and for trying to keep them away from the worst sort of influences.
3. Happy children who enjoy a supportive relationship with their parents may occasionally use drugs, or have drug-using friends, but rarely get identified with drug-using cliques.
4. Heavy drug use produces fairly obvious changes in behavior, such as disturbed sleep patterns, falling asleep during the day, and mood swings, that should raise red flags even before grades begin to fall.
5. Teens are notoriously uncommunicative but it is a parent's job to keep the lines of communication open, perhaps by cultivating a shared sport or interest. If something is really bothering them, eventually they will tell you - at least if they feel that you are available to listen uncritically. If so, there is less of a motive for drug use as an escape.

Serious teenage drug problems don't happen overnight. They are more likely to develop where relationships with parents are weak. Therefore, it is healthy for parents to assume they are highly influential in preventing their children's drug abuse.

Rowe, David (1994). The limits of family influence. New York: Guildford Press.

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