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'Just Say No' Isn't Enough

Discussing drugs with kids? Start early and keep talking.

WebMD Feature

April 17, 2000 (Bethesda, Md.) -- Before her children reached their teens, Barbara Basham, 52, watched for opportunities to teach them about the dangers of drugs. A news story about a celebrity arrested for drunk driving, a television show featuring a character hospitalized for substance abuse, became, as she puts it, teachable moments.

"There are a ton of opportunities to talk to your children about drugs if you look for them. We just integrated the discussions into our daily lives," says Basham, a financial consultant in Vallejo, Calif. Basham and her husband Jeff, 52 and retired, also taught by example. "There are no drugs in this house and we have only an occasional glass of wine or beer," she says. "You can't be a hypocrite. Children can detect that instantly."

Basham instinctively believed what recent research has confirmed: Parents can play a major role in helping their children avoid drug and alcohol abuse. By starting early, talking openly, and setting a good example, she did what she could to guide her two children through the turmoil of adolescence.

It wasn't easy, and the Bashams, like most families these days, had their work cut out for them. According to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, 80% of 12th graders have tried alcohol, and 41% of 13- to 18-year-olds have tried marijuana. But unlike many of their peers, the Basham children did not experiment with drugs. Their mother's advice to other parents? Start early, and keep talking.

How Parents Can Make a Difference

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA) found in a 1999 study that teens who live in homes where parents talk to them frequently about the dangers of using drugs are less likely to use drugs even when they are readily available at school. Over 40% of teens who never smoked marijuana say they resisted because of their parents' influence.

"These findings are very, very significant. They say that parents can have a positive influence on their kids," says Alyse Booth, who oversees the CASA study on teen attitudes toward drugs.

Still, the overwhelming majority of teens say that they are not learning about drugs at home. According to a 1998 study by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, virtually all parents reported talking with their teenagers about drugs at least once. But, significantly, nearly two-thirds of the teenagers couldn't recall even one conversation on that subject.

Howard Simon, a spokesman for the Partnership, says, "You can't have a single conversation and think the job is done. You have to have an ongoing dialogue. It's like advertising: One message doesn't get through. Advertisers know they have to run the message time and again and present it in different ways to get it across."

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