Parent peer groups help children say no to drugs, alcohol

On a warm May evening before the end of school, a small group of parents gathered at the high school in this Chicago suburb to hear guest speaker Elizabeth Houghton talk about drug and alcohol abuse among teen-agers. The statistics were alarming:

* One out of every 10 teen-agers is an alcoholic; it can take an adolescent only six to 18 months to become one.

* Seventy percent of teen-agers regularly use alcohol or drugs by the time they're high school seniors. Ninety-three percent have experimented with one or both by that time.

* Teen-age life expectancy has decreased 15 percent since 1960 because of alcohol-related traffic accidents.

* The average beginning age for drug abuse is 11.6 years old.

Despite this litany of problems, the central message Mrs. Houghton left with parents that night was a hopeful one: You aren't alone, you shouldn't be embarrassed if your child has a problem, and there is something you can do to combat the peer pressure that so often leads to drinking and drugs.

The answer, Mrs. Houghton feels, is parent peer groups.

She is the parent peer group coordinator for the Deerfield (Ill.) Citizens for Drug Awareness.

''A parent peer group is a group of parents whose kids are friends or classmates,'' she says. ''The parents may or may not know one another; chances are they don't. The goal of the parent peer group, ultimately, is to effectively parent their kids through adolescence so that they can grow up to be mature, responsible adults.''

The groups' more immediate aims are:

1. To educate themselves about the prevalence of drugs and alcohol. Parents are either very naive in this area or afraid to know the facts, Mrs. Houghton believes, fearing they may have to confront the issue in their own families.

2. To communicate. According to Mrs. Houghton, this takes the form of ''If you see my child doing something he shouldn't do, call me, and I in return will take that risk to call you, and we together will work on not being defensive about that.'' Some people might view this as a spy-ring approach, but Mrs. Houghton sees it as a kind of ''neighborhood,'' a re-adopting of closer neighborhood ties through which parents look out for one another's children, but also tell on one another's children if they do something wrong.

3. To set guidelines or rules. No drug or alcohol use; definite and enforced curfews; chaperoning at parties; and verification with an adult of their children's plans.

Mrs. Houghton is adamant on the subject of setting limits for children. Parents have lost social control of their children over the last 10 to 15 years, she contends. They buy keggers (large kegs of beer) for their children's parties and are intimidated if their stand is in the minority, because they want to be popular with their children.

Mrs. Houghton's interest in peer parenting dates back to the mid-1970s, when she discovered that her eighth-grade daughter and her friends had been using drugs for a year. She tried to get all the parents together to confront the issue but was unsuccessful. The attitude of the time, Mrs. Houghton recalls, was that nobody should be his neighbor's keeper. Her daughter's battle with drugs lasted 41/2 years.

The peer parenting concept began with a book called ''Parents, Peers and Pot, '' by Marsha Manatt. Ms. Manatt is affiliated with an Atlanta organization called the Parent Resource Institute on Drug Education (PRIDE). When someone from PRIDE came to Deerfield to talk about parent networking, Mrs. Houghton volunteered to organize the community's effort.

In the past 21/2 years, she has helped 40 to 50 parent peer groups in Illinois get under way. She conducts regular training sessions for interested parents, who then go back to their own towns to become parent leaders of their own groups.

Leaders are asked to follow a specific plan: First, they sit down with their child and draw up a list of 15 friends. The parents of those friends are contacted and asked to come to a get-acquainted meeting. At that session, a film on drug abuse is shown and the idea of peer parenting is presented. If the parents agree to form a group, they have a second meeting to draw up their guidelines. At this point, Mrs. Houghton says, many parents get scared and set up too many rules, so there's a third meeting so they can revise or rewrite them. At a fourth meeting, the students are invited so parents can explain what they're doing and why.

An important ingredient in all this is the example parents set at home, Mrs. Houghton believes. She says many parents today smoke marijuana even though it's against the law.

''There's no such thing as responsible adult use of any illicit drug, period. To do that is to condone an illegality.''

For the parents in one group, peer parenting has meant many things: a feeling of support, the security of knowing they all stand together, and a greater sense of control.

One mother says her biggest concern is that the parents give their children a lot of positive reinforcement and do not come across as a vigilante committee. Another mother doesn't feel the group has fulfilled its potential yet and would like to see it tackle other issues affecting teen-agers, such as suicide and the stress of homework loads.

Parent peer groups with fifth- and sixth-graders often work on parenting skills and helping their children establish a sense of self-worth. Everyone seems to agree that the earlier a parent peer group forms in a child's school years, the better. Parents at the high school meeting with Mrs. Houghton related stories of unchaperoned parties and drunken incidents and admitted the difficulty of imposing a strict set of rules on teens who have had a taste of ''freedom.''

Mrs. Houghton is planning an experiment in the Deerfield schools next year that she hopes will make the rules of peer parenting more universal and easier for high-schoolers to live with. She will set up informal parent peer groups by grades and ask all parents of students in a class to sign a list of principles covering curfews, chaperoning, and the use of drugs and alcohol.

That's not to suggest that parent peer groups organized by social circles have failed. More than 165 families in Deerfield belong to parent peer groups, and according to Elizabeth Houghton, it has made a big difference in the community.

''There was a big event at the high school earlier this year,'' Mrs. Houghton recalled, ''after which there was going to be a party (at one of the kids' houses). The parent peer groups were doing their job. They picked up the phone and called the mother; she was delighted they'd called. But when they asked, 'Are you going to serve something to drink?' and she said, 'Yes, we thought we'd get a keg of beer,' they said, 'We're not going to let our kids come.' It began to make a difference with this mother.... About five phone calls hit that family. There was no booze at that party. ... The kids came to the party and had a wonderful time.''

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