Gary L. Welton
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) frequently airs public-service announcements suggesting that parents should be talking to their children about the dangers of drugs. This is based on evidence that kids who consistently learn about the risks of drugs from their parents are 50 percent less likely to use drugs and alcohol than those who do not.
The astute reader might wonder what these results mean. Perhaps it is those parents who have established good relationships with their teens who find it easier to speak with them about drug use. These parents see very positive results, not because they dialogued about alcohol, but because they had already established positive relationships. Are the good results dependent upon the dialogue or on the positive relationships?
I don’t think we know the answer to that question, but we do know that parental relationships matter. Many positive results have been demonstrated when parents have good relationships with their teens. Healthy dialogue is one of those good results, whether or not the dialogue itself creates other positive benefits.
Parents are the most powerful influence in a child’s life. When our research team surveyed teenagers, we found that parental relationships predicted almost half of the variance in positive youth development.
The NIDA is suggesting that parents need to do a better job dialoguing about drug abuse, and it makes a valid point. I also assume, however, that there are many areas in which I need to do a better job at home dialoguing with my own teens beyond drug abuse. In fact, I think I have a fairly accurate sense of the drug issues that my teens face. But the broader question is this: Where are my blind spots? In what areas do I have insufficient knowledge about the lives and struggles of my teens?
Our research team asked more than 200 teens to respond to 36 questions describing their own self-control. We asked one of their parents to answer the same questions (in reference to the teen). Looking at the consistency, or lack thereof, between teen and parent answers gives us a sense of our blind spots. On which items do parents answer in a manner that is, or is not, consistent with their teens?
Here are the six items on which there was the most agreement; the items were changed from the first person to the third person when presented to parents:
• I spend too much money.
• I keep everything neat.
• Getting up in the morning is hard for me.
• I am always on time.
• I am lazy.
• I sometimes drink or use drugs to excess.
These are primarily overt behaviors. People know when you are a slob. Yet, included on this list is the item about drug abuse. The consequences of this behavior are also overt, even though the behavior is often done in secret. An attentive parent will generally know when there are teen drug issues, because teens show signs in their eyes and their arms, in their walking and their thinking. These are the areas in which we as parents know our kids reasonably well.
So, it would seem that drug abuse is an area in which parents have a fair amount of knowledge. Where are the blind spots? Here are the six items on which there was the least agreement:
•I’m not easily discouraged.
• I don’t keep secrets very well.
• I have trouble saying no.
• I am self-indulgent at times.
• I never allow myself to lose control.
• I have a hard time breaking bad habits.
These items deal with the struggles that occur within us as we live our lives. You might not know when you watch my behavior whether or not I am having trouble saying no. If I make a good choice, it may or may not have been extremely painful and difficult.
Certainly, it is important to talk to your teens about drug use. It is also critical to talk about their inner struggles. It is not just the outward behavior that matters, but also the struggles we face with difficult choices. As parents, we need to be talking about these issues at least as much as we talk about the overt behaviors.
Although these inner struggles might not come up often in our conversation, we can incorporate these discussion points as our family watches great movies. What do you think Scout and Jem are thinking in “To Kill a Mockingbird” as they experience these racial tensions? What struggles are they experiencing? How painful would it be?
Talk to your teens. Talk to them about the dangers of drug abuse, but don’t stop there. Talk to them about their conflicting desires and choices. Such conversation will foster healthy relationships, self-control, and positive youth development.
Gary L. Welton is a professor of psychology at Grove City College.