What keeps kids away from substance abuse?

posted Nov 14, 2011, 11:18 AM by Dale Wisely   [ updated Nov 14, 2011, 11:26 AM ]

In the current issue of the scholarly journal School Psychology Review is a study by researchers in California on factors in the lives of  teenagers which contribute to the likelihood teenagers will stay away from substance abuse.  The authors call these “ecological assets.”  The article includes a useful review of research to date.   It considers the following assets.

SCHOOL ASSETS:  (1) Caring Relationships and (2) Meaningful Participation.
EXTERNAL ASSETS (external to school):  (1) Community Factors (2) Peer Factors, and (3) Family Factors.

There are two aspects of school life most clearly associated with the likelihood that teenagers will abuse drugs and alcohol:  Caring relationships and meaningful participation.  According to research, when students have positive perceptions of school, perceptions of being cared about at school, and feel emotionally close to their teachers, they are less prone to be involved in substance abuse.   This is shown by research to be a particularly powerful  factor.   And when students are meaningfully involved in school and enjoy school-related activities, they are less likely to use drugs and alcohol.

Regarding peer factors, as you might guess, young people are more likely to abstain from alcohol and drugs when their peer groups support nonuse.   

A positive sense of community and perceived neighborhood safety are among the community factors associated with nonuse of substances.

What about family factors?   Most associated with reducing substance abuse are clear communication, proactive family management, authoritative parenting style, high monitoring and low permissiveness, and close positive relationships with parents.   Let’s consider these one at a time.

Clear communication.  We have emphasized in our efforts via the Mountain Brook Anti-Drug Coalition the need for all of us, as parents, to clearly express to our children our beliefs, and our policies, about underage drinking and drug use.  The communication of these beliefs and policies makes a difference.

It keeps coming back to this magical blend in parenting:  Clearly communicated and courageous rules, well-enforced, and firmly situated on a foundation of love and positive regard. 

Proactive family  management.   This requires parents to accept the reality that their own children can become involved in high-risk behavior, such as substance use.  It requires us to anticipate those problems and to parent accordingly.  It is about not just reacting when bad things happen, but parenting with an eye toward prevention.

Authoritative parenting style.   A number of studies have looked at, to simplify things a bit, three parenting styles:  Permissive, authoritative, and authoritarian.   The authoritative style is characterized by a high level of involvement by parents, including BOTH positive emotional support, and clear and relatively strict rules, well enforced.   On average, this leads to fewer substance abuse problems in youth than either the permissive style or the authoritarian style.  The less successful authoritarian style is characterized by lots of parental control, but in the absence of positive, supportive relationships.

High monitoring and low permissiveness.   Teenagers of parents who closely monitor their whereabouts (and their “who-abouts” and “what-abouts”!) and whose parents, again, have clear and well-enforced rules, are less likely to abuse substances.  This, as is true with most research in this area, goes against the attitude of “supervised” underage drinking or a kind of fatalistic acceptance of the “inevitability” of teen drinking.

Positive relationship with parents.   This goes back to the nature of that “authoritative” parenting style.  It IS about authority—about rules and prohibitions—but equally as defining of that more successful style is the maintenance of positive, supportive, loving relationship. 

It keeps coming back to this magical blend in parenting:  Clearly communicated and courageous rules, well-enforced, and firmly situated on a foundation of love and positive regard. 
Dale Wisely