'Hands-On' Parents Help Teens Say No to Drugs

Feb. 21, 2001 (Washington) -- A 'hands-on' parenting approach of rules and supervision is crucial to helping kids stay away from alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs, according to a national survey of teenagers.

Results released Wednesday by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University indicate that teens with 'hands-on' parenting are at one-fourth the risk of substance abuse of those with 'hands-off' parents. The results are from a telephone survey of 1,000 teens aged 12-17, conducted by the center last October and November.

"The family is fundamental to keeping kids drug-free," said Joseph Califano Jr., CASA president and former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. "Parents can do a lot more than they're doing. Moms and dads should be parents to their children, not pals."

H. Brent Coles, the mayor of Boise, Idaho, and president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said, "Our success will not be measured by how many coca fields we burn. We must win the battles at dinner tables and soccer fields."

According to CASA, there are 12 actions of hands-on parenting that were measured in the teen survey:

  • Expecting to be told where a teen is going in the evening or on weekends -- and being told the truth
  • Making it clear that they would be "extremely upset" to find the teen using pot
  • Not permitting periods of more than one hour after school or on weekends when they do not know where their teen is
  • Monitoring TV viewing by their teen
  • Restricting the CDs that their teen buys
  • Being "very aware" of how the teen is doing in school
  • Monitoring the teen's Internet usage
  • Having a family dinner "most every night"
  • Having a weekend curfew for the teen
  • Having an adult home when the teen returns from school
  • Making the teen responsible for regular chores
  • Keeping the TV off during dinner

CASA reported that only one in four teens lives with hands-on parents -- those who regularly practice 10 of the 12 above steps. And nearly one in five has parents who meet the definition of 'hands-off' -- those who consistently take five or fewer of the actions.

Clinical psychologist Peter Sheras, PhD, a professor of education at the University of Virginia, tells WebMD, "You need to set limits because kids need to push up against limits. If every time they push, you give in, or you're not around to set the limits, they don't experience any boundaries, and they keep doing things that are more and more dangerous."

But how much hands-on time is really possible in today's busy-busy world? "Parents' No. 1 daily challenge is balancing work and family," Nancy Rankin, research director for the National Parenting Association, tells WebMD. "Parents are under tremendous time pressure. If we are concerned about having them spend the time with their kids that their kids need, we have to create the conditions that support good parenting." Rankin says she advocates changes to school schedules, flexible work hours, and more part-time jobs with prorated benefits.

Parents also need to adjust their own attitudes, says Sheras. "We need a real change in lifestyle. It's about interpersonal connection, and some of that takes real time. It may not be as drawn out as you expect, but it does require some listening on your part to what your child has to say," he tells WebMD. "We have unfortunately promoted children to adulthood for our own convenience. We'll say to an 11-year-old, 'You're really old enough to be home by yourself' because we want to go skiing -- not because we think that's developmentally appropriate for them."

Meanwhile, some parenting experts didn't fully agree with the CASA survey's findings. Liz Berger, MD, a child psychiatrist and author of Raising Children with Character, tells WebMD, "I'm not sure that it's necessary to monitor what your children are doing, especially if you trust them. It really is a question of the depth of the positive relationship between parent and child. The child should feel the same kind of enthusiasm for his own future that the parent does about the child's future. That's where children get a sense of their own value."

"I don't like the whole mentality of keeping tabs," she says. "The relationship between parents and children requires an incredible amount of hands-on time from the parent. But advising the parents to snoop and spy and scold, I think that that just makes the youngsters want to get away from the parents as quickly as they can."

Carl Pickhardt, a private psychologist in Austin, Texas, and author of Keys to Raising a Drug-Free Child, tells WebMD, "What parents want to do is keep their kid as anchored as possible in activities and relationships that they really care about. The kids who have passionate interests going through adolescence tend to have a sober path. If you have a kid who has some things that he really cares about, you definitely want to support those, and you never ever punish by taking them away."

The survey is CASA's sixth annual report on attitudes regarding substance abuse. Compared with the previous year, teens said that obtaining tobacco was more difficult. But they also reported that it was easier to obtain marijuana than the year before. And, for the first time, CASA asked teens about the popular club drug ecstasy: 28% said that they knew someone who had used it.

A summary of the survey is available at