Family Matters! How Parents Can Help Children Remain Substance Free

Substance abuse or addiction is never about one person. Anyone who has watched a family member struggle with abuse or addiction knows how painful and disruptive it can be to the entire family. It can send shock waves that extend to all areas of family life and development.

Family characteristics alone do not determine whether a person will abuse drugs. However, a focus on families is critical to understanding and preventing the cycle of abuse and addiction that is prevalent in many American families. The cycle begins early: prenatal exposure to tobacco, alcohol and drugs can result in long-term effects, such as attention and learning problems, behavioral and conduct disorders, and even infectious diseases.

A recent white paper by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University explored the effects of family members’ substance abuse on children and examined multiple ways in which families influence children’s substance-related decisions and behaviors.

Independent research as well as the opinion of experts who participated in CASA’s 2004 CASACONFERENCE, Family Matters: Substance Abuse and the American Family, reveal that parents who abstain from smoking, drink responsibly, do not use illegal drugs, monitor their children, know their friends, provide loving support and communicate effectively,  are less likely to have children who use and abuse tobacco, alcohol or drugs.

CASA’s 2004 annual survey of teens and their parents found that over 14 million teens ages 12 to 17 (55 percent) are at moderate to high risk for substance abuse. Given the large proportion of teens at significant risk and the important role families play in children’s decisions to use tobacco, alcohol and drugs, it is essential parents know what they can do to help their children grow up substance free.


  • The more often teens have dinner with their parents, the less likely they are to smoke, drink, or use drugs. Teens who eat dinner with their families five or more nights a week are almost 50 percent less likely to try alcohol compared to teens who have dinner with their families two nights a week or less.
  • Fifty percent of children (38 million) in the U.S. live in a household where one or both parents smoke. Approximately twenty-five percent of children under 18 are exposed to alcohol abuse or dependence. An estimated six percent of children have at least one parent in need of treatment for illicit drug abuse.
  • Parents with substance abuse problems are three times more likely to report abuse towards their children and four times likelier to report neglect than parents without substance abuse problems.
  • Teens with divorced parents are over 50 percent likelier to drink alcohol.
  • Environmental tobacco smoke is present in at least one-quarter of households with children under age 18. Children of smokers have a disproportionate number of medical afflictions, including ear infections, asthma, bronchitis and pneumonia.
  • The frequency of psychiatric disorders among children with two alcoholic parents is higher than among those with one alcoholic parent.
  • Teens want to talk to their parents about tobacco, alcohol and drugs. According to CASA’s 2004 teen survey, which asked what they wished they could “honestly discuss with parents at dinner,” nearly one out of three said “substance use.”
  • Parents who demonstrate permissive attitudes about substance use put their children at risk for smoking, drinking and using drugs. In almost all instances, parents who outwardly and strongly disapproved tobacco, alcohol or drug use had teens that avoided these substances.
  • Children form their beliefs about substance use more on the basis of their parents’ actions than on their words. The notion of “do as I say and not as I do” will not prevent children from using tobacco, alcohol and drugs. Children are prone to imitate their parents’ behaviors, including their substance-use actions, especially if they have a close relationship.
  • Teens whose parents are “hands on,” that is, engaged in their lives, supervising them and imposing rules and standards of behavior, are at one-fourth the risk of abusing substances as teens whose parents do not engage in these parenting techniques.
  • Teens with an excellent relationship with either parent are at 25% lower risk for substance abuse; those with excellent relationships with both parents are at 40% lower risk.


  • Eat Together Regularly — Dinners or mealtime can help foster and encourage parent-child communication. This helps parents exert a healthy positive influence over their children – especially in the area of substance use. It also lets parents monitor their child’s activities, friends and school progress.
  • Be a Model For Your Children and Steer Clear of Tobacco, Alcohol and Drugs Children imitate parents’ healthy behavior, so make sure you act around your children the way you want them to act.
  • Be Clear and Consistent, Communicate Openly and Honestly…and Start Early Parents can effectively discourage substance use or prevent the progression of use by talking about it and cautioning their children about the risks. Effective communication with children starts when they are very young. Develop a pattern of open and honest communication early on.
  • Be a “Hands On” Parent
— Supervise and monitor your children’s activities, know their friends, impose reasonable curfews, and know who they are with and where they are going.

— Provide access to at least one caring parent or other adult with whom the child can form a secure bond and feel safe.

— Use an authoritative parenting style, that is, one that is neither overly controlling nor too permissive.

— Teach coping behaviors that provide an alternative to using substances when stressed or sad.

  • Supervise children and be consistent and firm with discipline. Make sure to set standards regarding use of substances and stick to them.
  • Foster Positive, Supportive Relationships with Your Children Parental praise, affection, acceptance and family bonding — as perceived by children — are all associated with reduced substance use.

SOURCE National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia Web Site: ;

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