Drugs, teenagers and parenting

By Dr G Shreekumar Menon

8 min read
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Representative image | Photo: AFP

Though drug abuse is a major concern worldwide, the strategies adopted to address it do not succeed when nations don’t factor the range of factors that impact young people’s lives, key among them being parental involvement. This refers to the amount of active participation a parent can devote to groom and guide a child’s growth and development.

Parents are viewed as enablers who provide children with meaningful opportunities and space to engage in fruitful and purposeful activities and relationships as part of their learning cum growing process. Parenting is an important component in the family system and plays a key role in engaging children, especially teenagers in assuming diverse and complementary responsibilities.

In this process parents are expected to help attain the biological, physical, financial and health needs of their children. Parents, thus play a key role in grooming their teenagers into becoming responsible and law-abiding citizens. The home thus becomes a pivotal centre in the growth of the teenager’s mental and physical faculties.

Home environment therefore needs to be positive, vibrant and in a way, a centre of excellence in order to guide and groom the teen into becoming a responsible and law-abiding citizen. The involvement of parents in the lives of teens is however often a challenge since most parents have limited time to spend with them, especially in urban areas where most of them are employed or are working professionals. This leads to many urban households facing considerable challenges in discharging their parental responsibilities.

Proper parenting is the key to the child/teenager displaying appropriate behaviour. But there is no education, or counselling to modern couples about what is ‘proper parenting’. As a result, each household grooms their children as suits their convenience. Poor parenting can be defined through an analysis of its different features.

Parents who abuse alcohol and drugs, indulge in constant fights at home, neglect children, have depression or psychopathology, parents providing mixed messages about drugs, and alcohol and granting permission for unlimited access to social networking, are all examples of poor parenting.

Parental monitoring and supervision of their children’s friendships are critical for Drugs and Substance Abuse (DSA) prevention. Parents need to set rules for their teenagers’ activities and monitor their friends circle, as well as social activities to ensure safe behaviour to rule out chances of involvement in drug and substance abuse

The most widely used drug worldwide continues to be cannabis, with an estimated 188 million people using the drug. According to UNODC, World Drug Report 2020, around 269 million people used drugs worldwide in 2018, which is 30 per cent more than in 2009, while over 35 million people suffer from drug use disorders.

The Report also analyses the impact of COVID-19 on the drug markets, and while its effects are not yet fully known, border and other restrictions linked to the pandemic have already caused shortages of drugs on the street, leading to increased prices and reduced purity. The popular illicit drugs used includes marijuana/hashish, cocaine including crack, heroin, hallucinogens, inhalants, or prescription-type psychotherapeutics used non-medically.

Teenagers are likely to use drugs during college holidays, on their way home and during weekends. The most common sources of drugs are small shops and bunks near schools and colleges, friends and sometimes unscrupulous school/college staff.

The Social Ecological Theory (SET) developed by Berkowitz and Perkins (1986) explains that the causes of substance abuse among young people are within the social or home environment. The central tenet of SET is that individual behaviours are mainly the result of socialization, and therefore the social institutions that shape it must change if the individual has to stop drug use.

Drug abuse as a problem can be handled by both the teachers and parents in collaboration, while the government should enforce strict laws and supervision to reduce the vice in educational institutions.

In addition to the home environment, teens face a great risk of being recruited into the abuse of drugs and substances by peers and drug peddlers and firms engaged in the production of various brands of unsafe, and spurious products.

Teenagers from families where one or both parents or guardians use drugs or substances of abuse are more likely to use the same. Also, very likely to use drugs are teens with knowledge of a friend or schoolmate using drugs or those who accompany parents to events where alcohol or any drug is being served.

Common risk factors include poor parental guidance and enforcement of laws, family conflicts, exposure to drugs through friends, negative role modelling by teachers, and existence of bars and small shops near colleges where drugs are traded clandestinely.

Parent substance use disorders (SUDs) also has negative impact on teenagers, especially those belonging to lower socio-economic status, those facing difficulties in academic and social settings, and family dysfunctioning. SUD is characterized by inability to control use of the substance; failure to meet personal, home and work obligations and health issues.

drug abuse
Representative image | Illustration: Mathrubhumi

Early intervention to address the factors often has a better impact than later intervention when it comes to helping teenagers avoid drug abuse. This means that parental monitoring and supervision of friendships are critical for drug abuse prevention. One-way parents can do this is by setting rules governing teenagers’ activities, monitoring their friends and controlling the amount of time spent in social networking.

Parents must also offer praise for good behaviour and conduct. Parents should also act as role models to their children by restricting drug use and alcohol consumption when they are with their children and avoiding storing alcohol and drugs at home. Also, parents should advise teens about the dangers of drug use and show disapproval of such behaviour, if they are found abusing drugs.

It is also essential that parents stay involved in the everyday activities of their teens like homework, as many studies around the world seem to suggest that parental support in completing home assignments, resulted in decreased illicit drug use by youth, when compared to youth who reported that their parents “seldom” or “never” helped. Nowadays, teens spend long hours on social media websites in the privacy of their rooms. Parents have no idea about the kind of websites their teens are visiting and which strangers they are befriending.

These are likely to lead to relationships with undesirable people as also lead to experimentation with drugs and alcohol. Further, such liaisons on the social media can lead to elopements, estrangement from family, and even getting entangled in anti-national activities. Hence, constant parental monitoring, guidance and support is a positive factor in teen development.

Most parents have no knowledge of what parenting style to adopt vis-à-vis their teenage children. With the vanishing of the joint family system, emergence of nuclear families, employed parents, unrestricted access to the internet and adoption of Western values, all have circumscribed parental role in grooming teens. Moreover, the present education system which necessitates hostel stay has led to gradual alienation of teenagers from their families.

Also, many teens are going abroad for studies creating a big gap in understanding and association between parents and their wards. Parents have no other role other than financing the education of their children, nothing more. Teenagers at a very sensitive age start experimenting with different lifestyles, social habits, values and partners.

A break-up, failure, or non-realization of expectations, and academic failure can result in seeking refuge in drugs, alcohol, and undesirable friendship, sometimes committing suicide all of which are catastrophic.

Parents should therefore engage their teens in regular discussions about the harmful effects of drugs and alcohol, and their strong disapproval of such consumption.

Parents should actively collaborate with college authorities to interact and guide students especially on matters affecting educational outcomes. This is because failure to meet academic targets can lead to stress which is a great risk factor for drug abuse. Such a move would also give an opportunity for school and college administrators to sensitize the parents about issues relating to drug abuse.

Teenage daughters have to be handled more carefully as use of drugs can lead to undesirable contacts, illicit sex leading to unwanted pregnancies and abortions, which will leave a permanent psychological scar on their lives. Parents contribute a lot in spoiling their daughters by giving them too much pocket money, not guiding them on what channels to watch on television, on what to read in magazines, and books.

Online addiction, excessive mobile phone usage, chatting with strangers, exchanging intimate photographs, all these habits carry the hidden risk of falling into the trap of illicit drug usage. It can also lead to entrapment by religious fundamentalists, blackmail, coerced marriages, and fleeing to war-ravaged foreign countries for participation in life threatening activities. Equally risky is the trend of going for late night rave parties in remote locations, social drinking and discotheques, as there is always the hidden element of getting drugged and sexually abused by strangers.

Other factors that affect teenagers are domestic violence, crime, and lack of basic things like sanitation, water, and food, can lead to drug abuse as a means of relief. Furthermore, many households are witnessing rapid breakdown of marriages resulting in single parenting becoming common and women being often the only parent to look after the teen. The risk of the teen developing the habit of drug consumption is high in such kind of families.

Confounding the issue is the fact that there is no hard and fast rule as to what is the ideal parenting system to adopt to ensure the security and well-being of the teenagers. As a result, each household has its own norms, developed by the parents themselves to suit their working and family conditions.

It is common for many families to adopt authoritarian parenting styles where they demand respect from children, respond to misbehaviour by harsh punishment, discourage open communication, and expect obedience to their terms and conditions without any murmur of protest. This can result in teenagers running away from their homes and getting trapped by unscrupulous people.

Authoritarian parenting style is associated with negative behaviour outcome among adolescents across different cultures. This style of parenting is not approved by sociologists and counsellors, and in the present-day world is becoming irrelevant.

In other households, parents try to adopt the role of a friend. No norms are observed, as parents want to avoid any kind of confrontation with their teens. As parents want their lifestyles to go unquestioned, they connive at their teens undesirable activities by pleading helplessness. Such households become safe havens for the teens to bring friends and indulge in undesirable activities. These all climax eventually in some familial crisis, which may have irreparable consequences for the family and their teens.

In households where single parenting exists, the caretaking parent is forced to adopt a dual role of father and mother. This results in the teen being pampered, as the caretaking parent wants to desperately avoid the stigma of a broken family. Teens get deep psychological hurt as they grow up, develop inferiority complex, and may secretly seek refuge in alcohol or drugs.

Poor parenting can also be passed from one generation to another. It entails either poor parenting practices or the absence of caregivers. The caregivers can be their older siblings, uncles, aunts, grandparents, family friends, or even neighbours. But, due to psychological issues in such kind of atmosphere, drug consumption can be an attractive proposition to get immediate solace.

Parenting plays a great role in determining the behaviour of people when they are young and also when they grow old. The nature and quality of nurture that a child gets determines their future. Behaviour problems are, therefore, associated with poor parenting. The absence of both or a single parent or caretaker, can quickly lead to drug addiction and alcohol consumption.

Drug abuse and alcohol problems among youths and children can, therefore, be prevented through good parenting. The behavioural problems are also directly proportional to the literacy levels of the parents with children having illiterate mothers being more prone. Besides, children with caring parents are likely to be less prone to experiment with drugs and alcohol.

Therefore, whenever schools and colleges arrange for ‘Drug Awareness Programs’ it is imperative that parents also be compelled to participate, as also get useful tips about good parenting practices. A positive role by the parents in their households can be a great boon for educational institutions, society and government.

(The author is former Director General, National Academy of Customs, Indirect Taxes & Narcotics, Faridabad; Fellow, James Martin Centre for Non-Proliferation Studies, Monterey, USA)

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