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July 18, 2000

Firm parental rules can deter or delay teen use of alcohol, marijuana

There’s new evidence that parents can prevent or delay their children from using alcohol and marijuana if they set clear rules and expectations – even if the relationships between parents and children seem strained during the teen years.

The finding comes from a new paper by University of Washington researchers examining patterns of adolescents’ first use of alcohol and marijuana, published in the American Journal of Public Health.

“We know from previous research that kids who initiate substance use early are at greater risk for having problems with these substances later on,” said Rick Kosterman, a research scientist with the UW’s Social Development Research Group and lead author of the paper. “We found that good parenting can make a big difference in preventing early alcohol and marijuana use. Good parenting includes having clear family rules, knowing where your kids are and who they are with, rewarding good behavior and having consistent and moderate discipline.”

The study showed that at age 10?, 25 percent of the children in the study reported trying alcohol while 3 percent had tried marijuana. Patterns of first alcohol and marijuana use differed during adolescence. By age 13, 64 percent of the teens had tried alcohol. The rate of alcohol initiation slowed over the next five years, but by age 18, 88 percent of children in the study had tried alcohol. Marijuana use remained relatively flat through age 13 when just 13 percent had tried it. Use increased in the mid- to late-teen years with another 37 percent sampling marijuana by age 18, bring the total up to 50 percent who had tried it.

Data for the paper came from a large ongoing study begun in 1985 of more than 800 Seattle school children headed by J. David Hawkins, director of the UW’s Social Development Research Group and a co-author of the paper.

The difference in the patterns of first use of alcohol and marijuana “reflects a perceived agreement in this country that alcohol is the drug of choice that is ultimately accepted by adults,” said Hawkins. “Not surprisingly, many children think alcohol is acceptable in the early teen years. It is readily accessible and available. It is the first substance that most young children will try, more so than tobacco which has more negative messages attached to it.”

Kosterman added, “Kids are likely to get very mixed messages about alcohol. For every cautionary message they are bombarded with commercials promoting alcohol. With marijuana kids are likely to perceive a greater consensus that it is not OK to use it.”

So what should parents do to delay or prevent their children from using alcohol and marijuana?

“You need to sit down with your children and tell them what your hopes for their future are and set clear expectations,” said Hawkins. “If you are going set a no-drinking policy you need to say why and make the message clear. Just trying to be a good friend isn’t enough. Once children try alcohol parents cannot predict who will or will not develop problems with it.

“Parents also need to monitor their kids and keep track of them in a nonintrusive way. Children need to know if they violate rules that there will be consequences. They also need to know that if they follow the rules they will get family recognition. This is important in reinforcing the rules. We are too often good at noticing the bad and terrible at noticing the good in our children.”

The UW researchers emphasized the importance of parents “not giving up on clear standards and good parenting, even if teenagers express anger, antipathy or distance in response to their parents’ efforts to influence them toward healthy behaviors.” These efforts and school prevention programs can help blunt the influence on teens of peers, siblings and others who use substances, they said.

Other co-authors of the paper are Jie Guo, a research consultant with the Social Development Research Group; Richard Catalano, professor of social work, and Robert Abbott, professor of educational psychology. The research was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
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For more information, contact Kosterman at (206) 543-4546 or rickk@u.washington.edu or Hawkins at (206) 543-7655 or jdh@u.washington.edu.