Communication Breakdown on Drugs

By Morin & Brossard

The Washington Post - March 1997

Ask parents and their teenage children about illegal drugs and then listen as the generation gap opens wide:

Yes, we've talked to our teenage children about drugs, a majority of parents say. No they haven't, say a majority of their teenage children. Yes, drugs are a serious problem in our local schools, say a majority of parents. No they aren't, say an even bigger majority of teenagers. Yes, our children have seen drugs sold at school or in the neighborhood and yes, they know someone at school with a serious drug problem, most parents say. No, they haven't - and no they don't, say a majority of teenagers. Those contrasting and seemingly contradictory responses emerged from a new national survey of teenagers and their parents conducted by The Washington Post and ABC News.

Yet while teenagers differed sharply from parents on questions about the prevalence of drugs in their own lives and experiences, more than eight out of 10 teenagers and their parents said illegal drugs are a major problem for teenagers nationally.

Among parents and teenagers who have talked seriously with each other about illicit drugs, both agree that the conversation helped, the survey found. Before they began talking about drugs, her daughter "used to use LSD and marijuana regularly," said Irene, a 54-year-old homemaker from Valparaiso, Ind., who was interviewed for the poll with her daughter but who asked that their last name not be used. "It helped her because she's given it up." "I realized it was stupid," said Irene's daughter Lois, 17, a senior in high school. "It was making all my problems worse." And an overwhelming majority of teenagers and their parents agreed that alcohol abuse is a bigger problem than drugs for young people in their communities.

"A lot of the kids are drinking more than smoking," said Bill Kern, 40, a ship pilot and father of two teenage boys from Dickinson, Tex. "We have to be more careful of kids sneaking a keg of beer into parties than using drugs."

But the survey confirmed that drugs remain a fact of teenage life. While few teenagers - about one in five - acknowledged ever using illicit drugs, six in 10 said at least some of the students at their school use drugs, a proportion that swells to eight in 10 among those in high school. Four teenagers in 10 said they have a friend who uses drugs, including a majority of high school students. A similar percentage said someone has offered to share drugs with them, and more than a quarter said someone has tried to sell them illegal drugs.

"Almost everybody does it," said Melissa Cook, 16, a sophomore from Burkburnett, Tex. "I'd say more than half of the students do it. A lot of my friends do it." The survey found that the parents of many of these teenagers also are no strangers to drugs. More than half - 55 percent - of parents interviewed acknowledged they smoked marijuana sometime in their lives, and one out of five admitted using other illegal drugs - experiences they said made it easier, not harder, for them to talk about drugs with their children. "I used to be a drug user," said Kathy Powell, 41, who works as a wax operator inspector and is Melissa Cook's mother, "and I told her some of the consequences of the things that happened to me. It made it easier because I personally experienced it."

Yet the survey found that the children of parents who acknowledged past drug use were more likely to have used drugs themselves, a pattern detected in other studies of teenage drug use. To measure what parents and teenagers think and know about illicit drugs, The Post and ABC News surveyed 618 parents of teenagers and 527 young people between 12 and 17 years old. The sample included 441 parents and 441 of their own teenage children. The margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus 4 percentage points. The survey revealed a communication breakdown between America's parents and their children. Nearly nine out of 10 parents said they have had a "serious talk" with their teenagers about illegal drugs. But when their children were questioned, fewer than half said they had ever had such a conversation with their parents.

Part of this apparent communication breakdown may be benign. "Some parents do not have formal talks with their teenagers about drugs but work it into the normal day-to-day conversation, thinking that's the more effective way to do it," said Lloyd D. Johnston, a University of Michigan research scientist and a national authority on drug use among young people.

Charise Degele, a 33-year-old mother of three from Frenchtown, Mont., said she believes the informal chats she has with her son Bud are the best way to communicate with him. "We do it a little bit here and a little bit there. He learns quite a bit about drugs without getting real serious."

Still, Johnston said he suspected that many parents may be remembering talks they wished they had with their children and not conversations that really occurred. "Its socially acceptable to say you have talked about drugs with your children and embarrassing to say you haven't," Johnston said. "If the kids didn't realize they've had a serious talk about drugs with their parents, they probably haven't."

Majorities of parents and teenagers agreed, however, that conversations about drugs should start before a child becomes a teenager. "I think parents should start talking to their kids at about 10 or 11 because in junior high school they'll know what to do if anyone offers them drugs," said Lynn Connelley, 12, who attends seventh grade in Kearns, Utah, and was interviewed along with her mother for the poll.

The survey found that most teenagers categorically reject drugs and the people who use them. The overwhelming majority agreed that illegal drugs are "so dangerous that you cannot safely use them, even once." But three in 10 - 29 percent - said they didn't mind "hanging around" people who use drugs. Ten percent of all teenagers interviewed agreed that taking drugs "is just part of growing up". Nearly as many teenagers - 8 percent - admitted they enjoyed "being high on drugs once in a while," and a similar percentage said drugs "help you forget your troubles," views expressed by only slightly more high schoolers than younger students.

The Post - ABC News survey found that eight in 10 teenagers and an identical proportion of parents rated illegal drugs as a "major" problem for teenagers nationally, followed closely by underage drinking. But the closer the questions came to their own neighborhoods, the further apart teenagers and parents moved. Two-thirds of the teenagers interviewed said drug abuse was either a "minor" problem or not a problem at all in their local schools. In contrast, more than half - 52 percent of parents interviewed - said drug abuse was either a "crisis" or a "serious problem" in local schools.

Parents also were more likely to believe their children had been exposed to drugs and drug users than teenagers reported they were. More than half - 54 percent - of all parents thought their children had seen drugs sold in their neighborhood or in their school, while 38 percent of the teenagers said they had witnessed drug selling.

Sixty percent of all parents said their child knew someone at school who had a serious drug problem, a belief confirmed by 38 percent of the teenagers. And 41 percent of the parents believed that someone had tried to sell drugs to their child, while 28 percent of the children said they had been solicited by a drug dealer.

"I think it 's offered to all students starting in the third grade on up," said Patricia Porter, 45, a cook and mother of four living in Union City, Pa. "Anyone who doesn't think that is living under a rock."