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

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.

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."

Ms. Flynn's 14-year old daughter, Audrey, says she has learned a lot about the dangers of drug use at school and has no desire to use them. "I've seen so many movies and clips - all these weird and disgusting things. I don't even want to try them," she says.

Teen drug use has gone down over the past three years. At the same time, a gulf exists between what parents think their kids are exposed to and the reality of what gets passed around the schoolyard. For instance, only 20 percent of parents think their children have friends who smoke pot, but more than 60 percent of kids say their friends use the drug. And while only 18 percent of parents think their own teens have tried marijuana, 39 percent of teens admit to researchers that they have done so.

Turgeon believes one reason parents are reluctant to talk openly about drug use and their own experiences is that the culture has changed so drastically. When he was in college at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., drug use was an "entree into an opportunity to meet interesting new people. Now it's just the opposite." It's shifted from morally acceptable to morally wrong, he says, and that helps explain why parents are hesitant to be honest with their own kids.

"They don't talk to their kids in part because they don't want them to know they did anything wrong," he says. "So there's now a moral pall around drug use that stifles discussion, and I don't think it's a good thing whenever society stifles open discussion."

Researchers say the lower perceptions of risk evident in this generation of drug-savvy parents also explain why parents are less willing to talk with their kids. Many of them got high, some regularly, and they're doing just fine. They assume their children will follow the same path.

But experts say that may also be misleading. New research shows that adolescents' brains develop more slowly than once thought. While 18 has become the accepted age of consent for a variety of adult activities, a new study by the Treatment Research Institute (TRI) in Philadelphia has found that full development of certain mental processes - notably judgment - doesn't take place until about 24. To some, this accounts in part for teenagers' risk-taking and seeming sense of invincibility. "This is a call for parents to take more action to substitute their own judgment for their teens'," says the TRI's Thomas McLellan.

To help parents bridge the gaps between their perceptions of drug use and their children's, the Partnership is launching a nationwide campaign to "pierce parental denial" about teen drug use. They believe their most effective tools are parents like Janet Pfaff, whose daughter Kristen died of an accidental heroin overdose in 1994.

Kristen was the bass guitarist in Courtney Love's rock band. When she looked tired and thin on tour, Kristen told her mother it was just the demanding schedule. "I believed it because I wanted to. I was in denial," says Ms. Pfaff, who now travels around the country telling other parents about her experience and urging them to get more involved with their children.

"Kristen's friends told me she was a recreational drug user," she says. "When I hear that, I tell kids and parents there is no such thing."

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