Parents’ Attitudes About Youth Use

By staff

This article is a continuation of our series addressing risk and protective factors. Risk factors increase the likelihood of youth getting involved in risky behaviors, like drug or alcohol use. Protective factors wrap a youth in protection and lessen their chances of getting involved in risky activities.


Does a parent’s attitude towards drugs and alcohol make that much of a difference? Research says it most definitely does.

A study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse states, “Children’s risk of marijuana and alcohol use and attitudes toward marijuana were influenced by their parents’ marijuana use pattern over time.” In addition, “Children whose parents used marijuana primarily during adolescence/early adulthood and those whose parents continued to use marijuana from adolescence through adulthood were at highest risk.” We know that kids will copy what they see their parents doing.

Poorly defined and poorly communicated rules and expectations surrounding youth use increase the risk that kids will use. Youth will tend to live up, or down, to expectations set for them. To give them the best chance of reaching their full potential and staying safe and healthy is to have them avoid any substances. The most effective way to have this work in the parents’ favor is to:

  1. Set the expectation.

“I expect you to not drink alcohol or do drugs until you’re at least 21.”

  1. Give the consequences.

“If you do decide to drink or do drugs, this is the consequence.”

  1. Follow through.

Is this always easy? No, especially if the consequence is taking their car away, and mom or dad ends up being a taxi service again, but it’s most definitely worth it. Just ask any parent who has a child that suffers with addiction. One parent in Colorado even moved to another state to try and keep her son away from the drug and influences that started his addiction. Unfortunately, to date, that did not work, and she has not spoken or seen him in over a year. So as hard as it is to implement the expectation/consequence/follow through, it’s infinitely harder than the alternative. It is also a lot less expensive. In-patient treatment costs thousands of dollars, and beds are becoming increasingly harder to find because of so many youth in treatment, with marijuana the number one drug of youth entering treatment.

Lax or favorable attitudes toward youth use also increase the risk that kids will use. Oftentimes parents think it’s safer for kids to drink at home, with excuses like “I take their keys so they can’t drive,” “I did it growing up, and I turned out just fine,” or “They’re going to do it anyway, so they may as well be at home.” To be clear, it is never safe for underage youth to drink alcohol or take drugs. There is so much research now on the effects of substances on the developing brain. For example, youth who start drinking before the age of 15 are four to five times more likely to have negative consequences from alcohol as an adult. Adolescents who regularly use marijuana can permanently lose up to eight IQ points and, if they start before the age of 16, one in four will become addicted. In addition, teen parties have the risk of sexual assault, assault, overdose, not to mention legal ramifications. Lastly, the vast majority of parents say they don’t want other adults giving their children drugs or alcohol.

Some adults may feel they’re being the ‘cool parent’ by hosting the parties and providing the alcohol or drugs. In an article by Marc Fisher, “Are You a Toxic Parent?,” he reported in his interviews with youth that what really set them off was bad behavior of parents who drink with kids, who supply alcohol, and who seem oblivious to their children’s problems. One boy said, “I have less respect for those parents. They think they’re the cool parents, but they’re not responsible.” Kids really do want parents who act like parents, even if they complain about it at the time.

In addition to making sure there are expectations, consequences and follow through, parents really do have the capability of changing their kids’ perceptions around drugs and alcohol, and it starts with modeling the behavior they want to see in their kids. It doesn’t require parents to be teetotalers, but it does take a concerted effort to be role models and mindful of what the consistent behavior kids are witnessing. If it’s normal for kids to see mom and dad drinking, smoking weed, or doing drugs, they’ll grow up thinking that’s what everyone does. Just like parental attitudes towards religion, politics, recreation, the neighbors, even brands of food can determine a child’s attitude or behavior, a parent’s stance toward youth use and their own use will influence a child’s choice to use drugs or alcohol.

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