March 23, 2012

Emotionally supportive teachers lower risk for alcohol use in middle schoolers

News and Information

McCarty’s Tips for Parents to Help Reduce Early Alcohol Use:

  • Know where your child is, and check in with your child on a regular basis
  • Get to know your childs friends, and who your child spends time with
  • Teach stress management skills
  • Help your child feel connected with adults at school

Mary Guiden
Seattle Children’s

Molly McElroy
UW News and Information

Adolescents who try drinking or other drugs before age 14 are more likely to have substance abuse and other health problems later in life. Figuring out how to delay drug experimentation has become a key to heading off problems before they start.

New research shows that teachers have a larger role in middle school students’ use of drugs than previously thought. Middle school students from the sixth to the eighth grade who felt more emotional support from teachers reported a delay in alcohol and other illicit substance initiation.

“We have known that middle school teachers are important in the lives of young people, but this is the first data-driven study which shows that teacher support is associated with lower levels of early alcohol use,” said Carolyn McCarty, a research associate professor at UW’s Department of Pediatrics and at Seattle Children’s Research Institute.

The study was published in online in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors.

McCarty and her co-authors also found that youths who reported higher levels of separation anxiety from their parents may be less susceptible to negative influences from peers, including experimentation with risky behaviors like alcohol use.

“Teens in general seek new sensations or experiences and they take more risks when they are with peers,” said McCarty. “Youth with separation anxiety symptoms may be protected by virtue of their intense connection to their parents, making them less likely to be in settings where substance use initiation is possible.”

McCarty talks about emotional health predictors of alcohol and illicit substance use in youth, and offers tips for parents in this video:

McCarty and the research team analyzed data from the Developmental Pathways Project, a longitudinal study of 521 youth sampled from the Seattle Public Schools. Researchers analyzed the effects of depression, anxiety, stress and support on initiation of substance use, which was measured at five different time points between sixth and eighth grade. Teacher support was defined by how close students felt to teachers or being able to talk with a teacher about problems they are experiencing.

The study also found that youth who initiated alcohol and other illicit drug use prior to sixth grade had significantly higher levels of depressive symptoms. This suggests that depression may be a consequence of very early use or a risk factor for initiation of use prior to the middle school years.

“Based on the study and our findings, substance use prevention needs to be addressed on a multidimensional level,” McCarty said. “We need to be aware of and monitor early adolescent stress levels, and parents, teachers and adults need to tune into kids’ mental health. We know that youth who initiate substance abuse before age 14 are at a high risk of long-term substance abuse problems and myriad health complications.”

Co-authors on the paper are Elizabeth McCauley, Seattle Childrens Research Institute and UW; Elise Murowchick, Seattle University; Isaac Rhew , UW’s Social Developmental Research group; and Ann Vander Stoep, UW.