Science of Parenting: Teen Drug and Alcohol Use, Abuse

AMES, Iowa – Trends over the past three years indicate that teens are more likely to think it’s OK to get drunk or use marijuana and other drugs. Prevention advocates are issuing a wake-up call to parents in this month’s Science of Parenting radio program podcast from Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

Steve Cline, deputy director of field operations for Partnership at, said teens are “more accepting that’s it’s OK to go out and get drunk on a Friday night. Usage of marijuana is up; usage of ecstasy — which we haven’t seen for a while — is back on the radar screen. So it’s disturbing, and we think it is a red flag, a big warning for parents to get involved in their kids’ lives and to learn more about what’s going on.”

Finding out about children’s real drug and alcohol use is easier said than done, noted Peter Komendowski, president of Partnership for a Drug Free Iowa and Face It Together. “No matter how easy it is to tell parents to talk to their children, there isn’t a real set of rules that makes it easy for that engagement to happen in a constructive way.”

Many times parents think they’ve talked seriously to their kids about drugs and alcohol, but their kids don’t view the conversation the same way, Komendowski said. “There is a little bit of a disconnection.… Children and parents do not interact well. We need tools and help.”

An added complication is dishonesty — when parents won’t admit or children deny their own use of drugs and alcohol.

“We recommend absolutely being honest. If you’re not honest, it can come back and kick you in the head at a later date,” Cline said. For example, parents don’t need to give any specific details, but can state that what they did in college isn’t necessarily what their kids should do now. Parents need to focus on the drug and alcohol issues their kids are facing today.

“Parents that successfully engage their children in discussion about drugs and alcohol use effect a very significant reduction in abuse by those children,” Komendowski said.

He added, “Spend as much time with your children as all the other things they do. If you can match the time they spend on the Internet and TV with quality time with them, maybe 20 hours each, that would be pretty good.”

Cline agreed that spending time with kids is important for parents, as well as extended family, caregivers, coaches, mentors, clergy, teachers and “whoever may be significant people in a young person’s life.”

An award-winning education program that helps parents build connections with their pre and young teens and prevent alcohol and other drug use is ISU Extension’s Strengthening Families Program For Parents and Youth 10-14 (SFP 10-14). SFP 10-14 includes seven interactive, fun sessions for parents and youth that help families talk about tough topics and communicate better with one another.

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Science of Parenting podcasts are available for free download from the Science of Parenting website,, or can be subscribed to in iTunes. Each month a new, 30-minute Science of Parenting program, as well as previous programs, will be available, as well as blog posts and other research-based parenting information.