Linda Provence was in junior high the first time she smoked marijuana with friends in her suburban neighborhood. At the time, her father lived at home but was not actively involved in her everyday life - something she now believes contributed to her lax attitude about drugs.
"I didn't have a good enough sense of myself to question whether taking drugs was good or bad for me," says Ms. Provence.
In a surprising finding that experts say should serve as a wake-up call to American men, a leading substance-abuse research center has found that fathers have a far more profound effect on teen drug use than earlier believed.
In fact, teens who live with both parents but have only a "fair or a poor" relationship with their father are at a 68 percent higher risk of smoking, drinking, and taking drugs than other teens who live with both parents. Even kids being raised by a single mom are at a significantly lower risk for drug and alcohol abuse than are those who live with both parents but don't have good relationships with their fathers.
The findings come from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University in New York, which for the first time has looked at the impact of family structure on substance abuse.
"Clearly, these AWOL dads don't just understand how important it is for them to be engaged in the their kids' lives," says Joseph Califano, CASA president and former Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under Jimmy Carter.
The findings come at a time when there is some good news in the fight against teen drug abuse. Several recent studies have found that after leveling off for two years, teen drug use actually declined last year.
Mr. Califano and other substance-abuse researchers believe that, armed with these new findings, American men can help turn that one year decline into a downward trend. And just as kids have to choose whether to use drugs in high school, Califano says, fathers have to make a choice to become engaged in their children's lives.
"We're not talking about complicated stuff. We're talking about eating dinner with your kids more frequently, helping them with their homework, being involved in their extracurricular activities more, going with them to church or other religious services," he says.
The national study also found that teenagers have far better overall relationships with their mothers. Seventy-one percent report having an excellent or a very good relationship with their mothers compared with only 58 percent who have such ties with their fathers.
More than twice as many teens say it's easier to talk to their mothers about drugs, and twice as many teens who've never used marijuana credit that decision to their mothers rather than their fathers. "Men are less available, and they're trained to be less available," says Caryn Kaufman, a substance-abuse expert in Cambridge, Mass. "From early on, they're scripted to be focused on succeeding and providing and not being in touch with that loving, nurturing stuff."
Ms. Provence, who requested anonymity because her past drug use could compromise her current position as prosecutor, says she also had a better relationship with her mother. But neither parent discussed substance abuse with her, at least not until she was arrested for drunk driving as a college freshman and spent a night in jail.
"Then my father said, 'Don't worry, we'll take care of it, everyone it does it, it's just that you got caught,' " says Provence, who now neither drinks nor uses drugs.
Most experts agree parents can play a key role in helping kids avoid drug and alcohol abuse. But there is some dispute about whether parents have enough influence to override other pressures.
"What the parent says is one thing," says Richard Scribner, a professor at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. "But when a child walks out into his community environment, there are usually billboards telling him to drink, local liquor stores touting their wares. It's the community that's not giving a consistent message."
A recent study in Louisiana found that only 40 to 50 percent of liquor and convenience stores regularly asked young people for identification. Mr. Scribner says since Louisiana began mandatory compliance checks this year, that's now improving. "But still, tobacco studies have shown you need compliance as high as 80 percent to really affect the availability of alcohol."
The CASA study found that next to parents, schools are the most influential factor in teen substance abuse. Kids who go to one of the 53 percent of American schools where drugs are "kept, used, or sold" are at twice the risk of ones who go to drug-free schools.
As a result, Califano says, parents also have to work with schools. "Parent power is the most undertested and underestimated power in this drug-abuse problem in this country," he says. "And dads are particularly out of it."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society