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Just say ... nothing? The parental 'drug talk' fades

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 7, 2005


Paul Turgeon, a corporate engineer and father, is a child of the Age of Aquarius - the 1960s and '70s when it was cool in many circles to get high, trip on mescaline, and experiment with hallucinatory mushrooms.

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In that, he is very much a member of his generation. But he is also an exception: He readily admits to his two teenagers that he tried drugs - indeed "just about everything under the sun" - at their age.

"I'm of the belief that if they can gain from my experience, all the better," he says. "But I also put that in context. I have had to make it very clear that a lot of the things that I did were viewed very differently then from the way they are today."

Today's parents are more likely to have used drugs in adolescence than any other generation. Yet, unlike Mr. Turgeon, they're proving more reluctant to talk about it to their children.

A new survey by the Partnership for a Drug Free America has found that 12 percent of today's parents have never talked to their kids about drugs and the risks they pose. That's twice as many as just six years ago. At the same time, parents are significantly underestimating their kids' use of and exposure to drugs in schools and communities.

This phenomenon is raising alarms in the drug-prevention community, primarily because statistics show that kids whose parents talk with them regularly about drugs are 50 percent less likely to use them. But it's also because this generation of children is facing a new drug-abuse landscape, where once-hip drugs like marijuana are being complemented by a variety of pharmaceuticals - from cough suppressants to painkillers - many of which can be easily found in their parents' medicine cabinets.

"Today's parents see less risk in drug use, and they admit there's significantly less communication going on with their own teens," says Tom Hedrick of the Partnership, a nonprofit antidrug group. "Along with the changing drug threats ... that parents are simply unaware of, we have a very dangerous situation developing."

Mr. Hedrick calls this group of parents "a very tough audience" because, like Turgeon, they came of age when drug use was at its peak and many used drugs to no apparent ill effect into adulthood.

Thus, they have a lowered perception of risk. For instance, in 1998, 35 percent of parents surveyed saw slight or no risk in their children trying marijuana once or twice. By 2004, that number had jumped to 43 percent. Similarly, six years ago, 7 percent of parents saw slight or no risk in their children trying cocaine once or twice. That's now jumped to 12 percent.

At the same time, most parents are like Valerie Flynn from Fairfield, Conn., who believes it's important to talk with her children about drug use. And most do, like Ms. Flynn, but sometimes without the in-depth, consistent conversations researchers believe can be an effective deterrent.

"I talk to them, but I feel like they know everything. They know more than me," she says. "And I assume they won't do anything. I trust them that they won't go near it."