Parents’ perceptions of teen substance use

The latest C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health finds that few parents (10 percent) believe their own teens, ages 13 to 17 years old, have used alcohol in the last year and even fewer (5 percent) believe their own teens have used marijuana in the last year.

Those levels are substantially below what teens themselves reported in the latest Monitoring the Future study, where 52 percent of 10th graders reported drinking alcohol in the last year and 28 percent of 10th graders reported using marijuana in the last year.

“There’s a clear mismatch between what parents are reporting in terms of their children’s possible use of substances and what teenagers report themselves,” says Bernard Biermann, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and Medical Director of the U-M Child/Adolescent Inpatient Unit.

These mismatched perceptions indicate a need for awareness and communication about teenage substance use, says Biermann. “Awareness is a means of opening the door to communication. If parents acknowledge the possibility – and in fact, the likelihood – that their child may have experimented with or used alcohol or marijuana, they can begin to talk to them more about it, provide some guidance, and allow their kids to ask questions.”

In the poll, Biermann and other researchers also found that parents of teens are very likely to believe that at least 40 percent of 10th graders used marijuana in the last year and that 60 percent of 10th graders drank alcohol in the last year. In other words, parents are more likely to expect marijuana and alcohol use by teenagers other than their own.

“The results of this poll indicate the potential value of educational campaigns for the public about teen substance use – reaching out to teens, parents and other adults to encourage better communication and shared information,” says Matthew Davis, M.D., M.A.P.P., Director of the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health and Associate Professor in the Child Health Evaluation and Research Unit at the U-M Medical School. “From our previous national poll efforts, we know that the public sees drug abuse and alcohol abuse as major health concerns for children.”
What can parents do about teen substance use?
Biermann suggests:
1. Talk to your teenager about substance use in a non-threatening way.
2. Carefully monitor teens when they come home and look for signs of substance use.
3. Try not to overreact to a single instance of substance use. Instead, use the opportunity to talk to your teen in a non-judgmental way and be available as a resource for resisting peer pressure.
4. Talk with your teen’s friends and talk with other parents. Sometimes others will share information that your own child won’t.
5. Read information from resources such as the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to become educated about common signs and symptoms of substance abuse.

The poll received coverage in the New York Times, the Globe and Mail (Toronto), and elsewhere.
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