What influences young people to take drugs?

It is important to distinguish between experimental and problem drug use. While more than a third of 16 year old students in the UK say they have tried at least one illegal drug, only a very small percentage go on to develop problem drug use which is of most concern.

Key risk factors for problematic drug use are:

a chaotic home life
lack of mutual attachment between child and parent
parental drug use
poor academic achievement by young people and their parents
low socio-economic status
Key behavioural risk factors are:
poor social skills
being unusually shy or aggressive
association with deviant peers
anti-social behaviour

Researchers and practitioners assign a crucial role to the family in the development or prevention of drug-related behaviours. The family is seen to exercise influence in a variety of ways:

Close family relationships. The closeness of the parent-child bond is found to protect against problem drug use by encouraging mutual parent-child trust, effective communication, positive self-perception and choice of friends who resist involvement in general anti-social behaviours, including drug use. Poor communication, poorly defined or stated expectations of behaviour and inconsistent or harsh discipline can all predict substance misuse. Parents have a very powerful influence as role models for their children, who tend to follow what their parents do rather than what they say. Parents, however, very often don’t realise the power of their influence, a situation which has potentially profound implications. This seems to be a key area in which parents need education.

Family management. Parents who lack effective management skills are less well equipped to deal with family crises, to reward or punish appropriately, to develop positive social behaviours in their children or to protect them from negative influences. Also parenting skills tend to be passed on down the generations. There are positive signs from research that with the right training, parents can provide an environment in which children can develop a whole range of abilities including self-confidence, self mastery and positive behaviours, all of which can offset negative peer influences.

Parental supervision. Parents knowing where their children are and what they are doing can delay or prevent the onset of drug use. Surrogate parent figures in after-school programmes or recreation activities can also be effective. The influence of this supervision can be direct in keeping children away from drugs, or indirect by reducing contact with drug-using peers. Parental monitoring can be improved through parent training programmes, but clearly parents need booster courses particularly during the child’s transition into adolescence.

Parent vs. peer influences. Parents and peers may be mutually influential and emphasising the power of peer pressure may lead parents to underestimate their own effect. Although parental influence does wane at particular stages of a child’s development, research indicates that they do affect the child’s behaviour in the long term. A debate continues on the relative influence on adolescent drug use of peer influence as opposed to peer selection. In summary, there are a lot of influences in a child’s life and family and parents are one bit of a jigsaw. However there is no doubt that families do have a very important role and that this offers valuable opportunities for drugs prevention. The latter part of the paper looks at the evaluations the team has carried out with five DPI parent projects and identifies key issues in their success. The research shows that almost every element of projects involving parents – building local credibility, recruiting parents, assessing needs, meeting some of these needs, and evaluating the impact on children – requires a considerable amount of time. Much of the success seen in the projects evaluated can be attributed to the efforts of project workers in establishing a trusting relationship with parents, with local schools and community agencies. The team’s research so far has identified the following strategies for success:

Build effective partnerships at the outset. Financial partnerships, profes-sional support, contact with parent groups are all crucial.
Be imaginative in recruiting parents through school. Build credibility, for example by getting an enthusiastic teacher to help, and use creative ways to involve parents, such as getting children to put on a performance built around drugs prevention activity.
Take plenty of time to establish the profile and credibility of your project when recruiting in the community.
Parents are more likely to get involved in projects with more general labels which avoid the potential stigma of drugs, such as “Living with Teenagers” or “Keeping your child happy, healthy and safe”

Conclusion: Children are exposed to a range of substance use behaviours from their parents, other adults, peers and the mass media. Perceptions of what is considered normal behaviour in the home may encourage or discourage young people from drug misuse.

Source: The authors – Richard Velleman, Willm Mistral and Lora Sanderling are all members of the University of Bath. Bath Mental Health Care NHS Trust Joint R&D unit. – Published in ‘Evaluating Effectiveness: Drugs Prevention Research Conference’

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