What We Learned in Our Early-Intervention Parent Focus Groups

focus groups

Have you ever wondered what struggles other parents or caregivers of teens encounter when dealing with drugs and alcohol today? With vaping on the rise, the legalization of marijuana spreading across the country, and the influence of social media, we were curious as to how parents deal with these new challenges facing their families.

To get a handle on what parents are facing and how they are responding, we recently conducted eight focus groups across the country with a diverse set of parents of 11- to 16-year-olds. Some were certain that their kids had never used substances, while others suspected that their kids might be drinking or using other drugs.

Our conversations were wide-ranging and informed by research data on substance use that we shared with the parents. Here are a few of the highlights:

Being a Parent in Today’s World

These parents told us that they try to lean on the experiences that they had growing up, but the world is evolving so rapidly that their personal childhood experience is often irrelevant. Parents lamented that their children are exposed to more information — not all of it good — more frequently, and they find it difficult to be “gatekeepers.”

How Parents View Teen Substance Use

All of the parents we spoke with take teen substance use seriously. However, they recognize that it’s likely that their kids will be exposed to drugs or alcohol and possibly engage in substance use. Some parents were surprised to learn that the person who introduces their child to substances will more than likely be a friend, older sibling or a permissive parent who allows substance use in their home, not a “drug dealer.”

Most parents were very clear about expectations around not drinking or using other drugs. However, there were a few parents who thought it was useful to “inoculate” their kids around alcohol or marijuana, meaning that they would allow their kids to get drunk or high so that their kids would “know what it’s like” and be less likely to “go crazy” when they are on their own. These parents were surprised to learn that middle school and high school kids who use substances were more likely to be the heavy partiers in college and actually at greater risk for a substance use disorder.

Seeing Substance Use as a Teen Health Issue

Many parents were surprised to learn that 90 percent of people with addictions started in their teen years — sometimes even earlier. From the time kids are about 10 years old and through their mid-20’s, the brain is undergoing massive changes, developing important capabilities for adulthood. These include the ability to regulate emotions, weigh the pros and cons of risk-taking, understand what consequences might be before they happen, and problem-solve. Using substances like drugs or alcohol during this critical time can hurt teens’ brains. In fact, some teens who have heightened risk factors are even more vulnerable to adverse impacts than others. These risk factors include a family history of problematic substance use or other addictions, underlying mental health problems (such as depression, anxiety, or ADHD), childhood trauma (such as witnessing or undergoing school shootings, abuse or neglect, or violence) and being bullied.

Believing Kids Have “Addictive Personalities”

In further discussions about risk factors, some parents were concerned about their kids having “addictive personalities.” While there is no formal diagnosis of this as a personality disorder, lots of parents use it as a sort of “catchall phrase” to describe kids who are impulsive, risk-takers or rebellious. These kids can be more likely to try substances and have it turn into an addiction.

How Kids Should Get Alcohol and Drug Education

Parents were split on how their kids should be educated about the risks around substance use. Some parents felt schools should take the lead. Once their kids have been educated about the topic, parents would reinforce the information. Not wanting to count on the school, other parents felt that they needed to have an ongoing conversation with their kids about substance use, as well as lay down the rules. These parents were worried that if they didn’t take the lead, their kids would learn about substance use from the internet, social media, pop culture and their more adventurous peers.

Worries About Social Media

Most of the parents we spoke to mentioned that they believed that instant access to information, smartphones and social media has made parenting more difficult. They believe that it’s harder today than when they were growing up. It’s both more difficult to engage with their children when they are buried in their smartphones, and their kids are exposed to more outside information than ever before. They also felt like they needed to be fully informed on key issues before having serious conversations, or risk not having the information needed to back-up their positions when their kids argued with them.

Links to Mental Health Problems

Almost all of the parents we talked to were concerned about differentiating between typical teenage angst and mood swings versus having a mental health disorder. Research indicates that kids who have struggled with these issues have a higher risk of developing a drug or alcohol problem – an estimated 30 to 45 percent of adolescents and young adults with mental health disorders also have a substance use disorder. It’s important for parents who suspect their child might have a mental health problem to get an evaluation. Otherwise, self-medication through substances could be a possibility.

How to Parent for Prevention

Parents who were certain that their kids hadn’t engaged in any substance use shared these strategies related to prevention that they found useful:

  • Creating an open and ongoing dialogue where their kids can “tell them anything.”
  • Actively having prevention discussions when it comes to substances, not waiting for the school, friends or social media to fill in the blanks.
  • Setting their own example as parents, like modeling ways to reduce stress or relax without turning to alcohol or other substances.
  • Using techniques to monitor kids’ behavior (such as making sure they had access to all passwords and social media, driving them places and listening to backseat conversations, meeting kids’ friends, etc.).
  • Being willing to talk to other parents about which kids are reported to be using substances — including their own.

This last point about talking to other parents about their own child or their child’s friend using alcohol or other drugs created quite a lively discussion. On the whole, parents said they would want to know if another parent found out that their child was using substances and would welcome a call. Several parents were conflicted about what to do if their child reported substance use on the part of a friend. They were concerned that other parents would resent a phone call or be angry, even if they themselves would welcome the information.

Parenting Strategies If Your Kid Starts Using Substances

Parents noted that they would have “the talk” (again) with their kid if they thought there was substance use and take away privileges like cell phones or driving — but if that didn’t work, they weren’t sure what to do.

Some parents mentioned “scared straight” tactics, telling their kids the awful things that had happened to them personally or to someone else in the hopes that this would work. Research suggests that scare tactics can work with young children, but typically won’t with teens. Teenagers’ sense of invincibility or “that won’t happen to me” is more compelling.

Other parents shared that they would just hope for the best — that their kids would be responsible enough and not get into risky situations, while some parents said they might consider getting professional help if the situation escalated. Parents were worried that getting a school counselor involved would cause substance use to appear on a child’s transcripts. Similar concerns surfaced regarding law enforcement involvement and a child’s record.

So, How Worried Should I Be, and What Can I Do?

The majority of parents we spoke to had not thought about where the boundaries are between being exposed to substance use, experimentation and a serious problem. In several cases, their kids having been exposed to drugs or alcohol raised questions like, “How worried should I be that there is a family history of addiction and I know my child has tried alcohol?” or “My child is anxious and is vaping and smoking pot sometimes. What can I do short of rehab?” The truth is, there is a likelihood that experimentation could evolve to a full on substance use disorder, especially for kids with these kinds of risk factors.

So what should parents do if confronted with experimentation or early use of drugs or alcohol? We know the best outcomes occur when parents intervene early and take action. There are proven parenting strategies for redirecting early substance use, addressing the gap between a talk and and professional help. These include ways to have conversations about the topic so that it doesn’t go in one ear and out the other, how to consistently reinforce teens’ positive behaviors (even if those are few and far between), and letting kids deal with the negative consequences of their substance use as learning experiences. Getting to know these and other strategies and tools can help parents take effective action to reduce, delay or eliminate substance use altogether.

How Worried Should I Be About My Child's Drug Use?

Learn some warning signs and strategies on how to address early drug and alcohol use if you find out your kid is experimenting.