Pubdate: Tue, 12 Oct 1999
Source: Times, The (UK)
Copyright: 1999 Times Newspapers Ltd
Author: Simon Crompton


Parents of children who turn to alcohol and drugs typically blame
themselves. New research will provide them with little reassurance. It
says that the blame does indeed often lie at their door - but it is
fathers who should take the brunt of it.

An American study shows that teenagers with a poor relationship with
their fathers are at a significantly higher risk of smoking, drinking
or using drugs than those who get on well together. Indeed, the
quality of the child/father relationship was found to be a more
important factor than whether they come from a two-parent or a
single-parent family.

The least rebellious teenagers are those who have a positive and open
relationship with both parents. But the study found that most
teenagers do not. While 57 per cent of the young people surveyed
turned to their mother to talk about drugs, just 27 per cent turned to
their father, and many fathers had a low profile in the battle against
substance abuse.

Although uncomfortable, the research cannot be dismissed as another
American crackpot theory. It was conducted by the National Centre on
Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, one of the
United States' foremost research centres. The study involved 2,000
children aged 12-17, and 1,000 parents.

It is not an entirely new departure. American researchers had already
identified fathers as key influences on other aspects of children's
adolescent development. In the early 1990s, for example, writers such
as Margo Maine put the blame for eating disorders on fathers who could
not adapt to their daughters' emerging sexuality, and consequently
became withdrawn or continued to treat them as young children. But the
Columbia University research is the first in America or Britain to
identify fathers' pivotal role in combating teenage smoking, alcohol
and drugs in such a strident way.

The conclusions drawn by the centre's President, Joseph A. Califano
Jr, are prescriptive and unavoidably transatlantic: "This should be a
wake-up call for dads across America," he says. "Every father should
look in the mirror and ask: How often do I eat meals with my children
or attend their games and extracurricular activities?" Perhaps the
wake-up call should sound over here too.

Research on why teenagers take up smoking, alcohol and drugs in
Britain has acknowledged parental influence. But it has tended to
concentrate on parental example, or to view their influence as one of
many interrelated factors. Poor or authoritarian parenting has been
identified as a cause of delinquency which, in turn, has led to
tobacco, alcohol and drug use. Other research has pinpointed social
and economic status as the key to drug use.

Yet some recent studies have suggested that children's relationships
with their parents might have a more direct effect on tobacco, alcohol
and drug use. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that young people
who reported conflict with parents were more likely to smoke, and that
those who spent less time with their families at 15 were more likely
to have tried illicit drugs by 18.

Beyond the realms of cold research, teenagers' own stories of how they
got involved with drugs indicate how complex the relationship with
parents can be.

Alan is currently trying to go straight for his father's sake. He
feels that his drug-taking was to blame for his parents' splitting up.
"I was quite good at school, but I started drugs when I was 16 and
didn't bother getting a job. I didn't realise it then, but my parents
were having a rocky patch at the time. When I started robbing from
them, they kicked me out and got divorced soon after.

"I think I was partly to blame because they were so worried about me.
I blame my Dad as well because he didn't have much contact with us. I
got on better with my Mum, because Dad didn't really have much time to
be with us. In May this year I made up my mind to stay clean, and told
my Dad, who's taken me in again. I'm working hard to get his trust

For Richard, beatings by his father were a key factor in his
drug-taking. "My father was overpowering and very strict. He beat me
from an early age, and also beat my mother. There was always a lot of
tension in the house," he says.

"My dad also smoked cannabis, so it was always around and I started
smoking it at the age of ten. By 14, I was taking heroin and any drink
or pills I could lay my hands on. I just wanted anything that would
take me to oblivion. Drugs took me away from the hell of my family."
From simple poor communication to the extremes of abuse, what most
stories illustrate is that drugs are always available to teenagers,
and that parents' attitudes and behaviour can crucially influence
whether their children act on that availability.

Danny Mann, who helps addicts on a day-to-day basis as project manager
of Turning Point's Chester Drug and Alcohol Unit, believes that young
people desperately need support and involvement from their parents.
"No two cases of drug use are the same," he says. "But the family
slant is invariably the important one".

Danny is also a father and is aware of his influence. "I sometimes
think I must be the Dad from hell because I know more about drugs than
my kids do. I haven't gone in with a 'just say no' campaign. I talk to
them about drugs. If they say they want to try speed, I tell them the
stuff on the market at the moment is only 6 per cent pure."

Danny's instincts are backed by further research, which indicates that
laying down the law isn't the answer, but that keeping communication
channels open is. The Alcohol Research Unit at the University of Hull
found that teenagers from neglectful or authoritarian families were
most likely to use alcohol and drugs. In contrast, teenagers from
supportive families were less likely to have a problem.

The American research takes such conclusions a step further by looking
at the separate influence of father and mother, rather than parents
generally. In so doing, it confirms what many already suspect by
instinct or stereotype: that men, for whatever reason, are not as good
as women at talking openly, and being supportive rather than
authoritarian. When it comes to drug use in teenagers, all these
factors seem to be important.

David Best, research co-ordinator for action on addiction and lecturer
at the Maudsley Hospital's Institute of Psychiatry, says the work
lends support to a community focus for drug education and
intervention. "Instead of looking exclusively at the child, our
understanding of risk is enhanced by looking at the context," he says.
"The role of parents is likely to be crucial."

But parents cannot always be expected to know what to do by instinct.
"They need to be supported," says Mr Best. "They need to be educated
themselves and, where appropriate, to curb their own use of alcohol,
tobacco and drugs."

One model for helping parents may be found in the East Riding of
Yorkshire, where supporting and informing parents is central to the
education authority's drug education work. As curriculum project
manager for drug education, Ian Grandidge holds regular drug awareness
evenings for parents in schools.

"Most parents are ignorant about drugs, and scare stories in the media
don't make things easier," he says.

"They feel their children know more about drugs than they do. So we
give them accurate information about the different types of drug use
and put them into proportion and context. Our message is: be prepared
to discuss, learn and share.

"If the parent holds influence, and the relationship with the child is
safe and solid, then from my experience that reduces the chance of
drug misuse considerably." 

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