The right neighborhood, the right school, the right activities, the right friend groups: the deliberate choices made by parents to safely raise their children into adulthood—yet lax parental attitudes and behaviors can unravel this careful knitting of “right choices,” and influence adolescent substance use.
Findings in the newest edition of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s Emerging Drug Trendsreport, produced in collaboration with the University of Maryland School of Public Health, highlight the complexity of the relationship between socioeconomic status and youth substance use, and show that no one group is immune from the risk of starting to use substances or developing a substance use disorder.
While socioeconomic status can impact barriers to treatment and even prognosis, the results of the survey may surprise many, and reinforces the longstanding notion that the risk for development of problematic substance use is not as dependent on educational and social status as some may intuit.
“We cannot pin the source of addiction only on issues of social justice and inequity, or assume that addressing the latter two will relieve the societal burden caused by addiction,” said Dr. Joseph Lee, medical director of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation Youth Continuum. “While we have an ever-growing need for social justice in our time, thinking of addiction as a passive downstream byproduct of, or compensation for, accumulated social woes produces an inadvertent and cruel stigma of its own—against the power and reality of addiction independent of its context.”
While socioeconomic disadvantage has long been recognized as a risk factor for some adolescent health behaviors such as smoking, research hints at the notion that having more educated, upper-middle-class parents might actually confer risk for excessive drinking and other forms of substance use.
“No parent would willingly expose the child they love to a devastating disease, yet some do so inadvertently when they let their children expose their developing brains to alcohol,” said David Sherrell, interim executive director, FCD Prevention Works, part of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. “We know—as this report highlights—that parental permissiveness is associated with higher rates of early and high-risk alcohol use by teens. As health experts, we routinely advise parents, ‘Set and enforce the expectation that your children will delay their first use of alcohol as long as possible, to give their brains time to develop free of substance-induced risk.‘ “
The common denominator across many studies is the importance of parents; the research in this new report sheds light on parental practices that might lessen or delay a child’s risk of becoming involved with substance use. Numerous research studies confirm that certain parenting practices reduce the risk for adolescent and young adult substance use—and some exacerbate it.
- First, strict limits set by parents regarding substance use can reduce the likelihood that their children engage in risky substance use and experience related consequences.
- Second, spending more time with children (i.e., high levels of parental involvement) and attending school events have been found to be associated with lower levels of adolescent substance use.
- Third, high quality parent-child communication about alcohol use and its consequences significantly predicted lower levels of drinking and fewer alcohol-related problems.
“More than ever, parents are vital to how young people view, experience and respond to the temptation of dangerous substances,” said William C. Moyers, a bestselling author, recovery advocate and vice president at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. “It is our responsibility, our opportunity, as parents and grandparents to maintain open and honest dialogue with our children and grandchildren about both illicit and legal substance use. If not us, who?”
Research often focuses on the risk and protective factors for adolescent substance use, because alcohol, marijuana and other drug use during the critical neurodevelopmental period of the teen years is highly predictive of a wide variety of later problems.
The report examining the influence of socioeconomic factors is the sixth edition of the Emerging Drug Trends report, designed to provide front-line treatment and research perspectives on America’s No. 1 public health problem, addiction. The report looks in greater detail at the following:
- Are there differences in adolescent substance use by parental education and/or family income?
- New findings from research on “children of affluence”
- Predicting young adult marijuana use: the importance of early school environments
- What does the research evidence mean for parents?