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Discussions, Not Lectures, Steer Kids Away From Drugs, New Research Shows

December 4, 2014

By Michele McDonald

Chaplin

Chaplin

Parents who want to know the best way to talk to their teens about drugs now have some science to help guide them, according to new research from George Mason University.

Researchers discovered drug-use scenarios or “what if” conversations are the most effective approach for parents to take with their teens. Criticism or “follow the rules or else” are the worst.

And the George Mason researchers have science to back up their recommendations in the study that’s the first to combine questionnaires, observation and physiological reactions. They measured heart rate, blood pressure and salivary cortisol levels, all indicators of stress, before and after 10-minute candid conversations between 58 teenagers and their parents.

The higher the stress, the higher the likelihood the teens are to use drugs, researchers say.

“We tell parents to talk to their kids about drugs but we don’t tell them how,” says Mason psychology professor Tara Chaplin, the lead author of the study, which also includes researchers from Yale University School of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

When parents focused on the rules, teens shut them out. Surprisingly, telling teens “don’t use drugs” seems to have little positive effect, Chaplin says. Instead, that long list of rules appears to threaten teenagers.

Criticism is worst of all.

“Parents who made fun of their kids or ridiculed their kids did not get a good response at all,” Chaplin says. “Based on our findings, I’d suggest that if you’re having a conversation with your teens about drug use, don’t be critical. Save the criticisms for another time, if at all.”

Parents should talk to teens about drugs using "what-if" scenarios if they want to have a positive effect on teen decision making. Thinkstock photo

Parents should talk to teens about drugs using “what-if” scenarios if they want to have a positive effect on teen decision making. Thinkstock photo

When parents were warm and supportive and talked about what their teens would do in drug-use scenarios or asked more open questions, the teens were more receptive and their heart rates, blood pressure and cortisol levels showed it.

“Have a conversation rather than a lecture,” Chaplin says.

Discussing how drugs can wreck your health didn’t seem to matter much at all to the teens. But that doesn’t mean it won’t later on.

“At that age—12 to 16 years old—they’re not thinking about the consequences because they’re thinking about the present,” Chaplin says. “But later on, as they become adults, they might think back and say ‘Oh, mom told me about that when I was a teenager.’”

Chaplin began this research with 60 teenagers at Yale and now continues it at Mason for a total of 200 teens. She’ll be following these teens through adulthood. Chaplin has a five-year grant from the NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse.