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Teenagers and Drugs and Alcohol-How much do You Really Know?


You have an open, honest relationship with your child. If there were drug or alcohol use, or cigarette smoking going on, you would know it. You know you would.

You could be right. On the other hand, you could be very wrong. A recent study showed that parents routinely underestimate their children's use of alcohol and other drugs.

In the study, researchers asked 591adolescents (ages 12 to 17) about their use of drugs and alcohol. After that, the researchers questioned at least one parent of each adolescent about their knowledge of what their child was using. Results showed that the parents did not have an accurate picture of the frequency with which their children were using drugs. For example,

  • 54.4 percent of the teenagers reported they had consumed at least one alcoholic drink in their lifetime and 23.6 percent reporting they had been intoxicated. But only 30.5 percent of parents thought their child had had a drink, and only 8.2 percent thought their children had ever been intoxicated.
  • 44 percent of the teenagers reported smoking cigarettes, but only 27 percent of parents knew their children smoked.
  • 23 percent of the teenagers said they had used marijuana, but only 13.2 percent of their parents knew it.
  • 8.5 percent of teenagers said they used drugs other than marijuana, and only 3.1 percent of the parents knew it.

    One of the important points about this study is that parents of the younger teenagers-the 12- and 13-year-olds-were the least likely to have a realistic picture of what their children were up to. This is particularly worrisome because research shows that the younger kids are when they start to use drugs and alcohol, the more likely they are to develop addictions.

    Know the warning signs

    There's no guarantee that your child is using drugs or alcohol if these warning signs are present. However, if they are present, it's important to pay attention to them. Here are some of the common signs:

  • Having a best friend who uses drugs or alcohol
  • Taking up with new friends who avoid you
  • Being friends with older kids and young adults
  • Neglecting routine duties at home
  • Not caring for people and values that used to be important
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Keeping phone calls secret
  • Suddenly having expensive new things for unexplained reasons
  • Lying

    What puts your child at risk?

  • Family history of drug use or alcoholism
  • Learning differences and failure early on in school
  • Difficult family situations
  • Low self-esteem
  • Behavioral problems before the teen years
  • Difficulty controlling him or herself

    Where can you turn if you think drug or alcohol use is present?

    Even if you think something's going on with drugs or alcohol, it's hard to know what to do next. These are the people you could consider contacting for help in taking the next step:

  • Your family doctor
  • Alcoholism or Drug Abuse Hot Line, or other services listed in the Yellow
  • Pages under "Drug Abuse"
  • Social worker, psychologist, drug counselor
  • Guidance counselor at your child's school
  • Priest, pastor, rabbi or similar person
  • Trusted friend or relative in a "helping" profession

    Listen to your instincts

    No parent wants to believe a child is using drugs or alcohol. And no parent wants to believe their child isn't being completely open and honest. But teenagers do not always tell their parents everything. That's hard to hear, but it's very normal.

    Very often, after parents do find out their child has been using drugs or alcohol, they say that there were little signs here and there, but they didn't really think much about them at the time. Those are the things you need to pay attention to. When something happens that feels odd, doesn't ring true or seems out of place, listen to what you say to yourself about it. Pay attention.

    Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, October 2006; National Institute on Drug and Alcohol Abuse; NYU Child Study Center
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