Teens and drugs: Drug use statistics and treatment that works

Here are some drug use statistics:

  • Over 80% of teens engage in some form of deviant behavior (1).
  • Over 50% of high-school seniors admit to having used drugs (2).
  • Only 10%-15% of the population develop drug addiction problems related to their drug use (1).

The question is:

If the majority of teens experiment with drug use, and so few eventually develop drug addiction problems, should we be focusing on something other than stopping kids from trying drugs? Continue reading “Teens and drugs: Drug use statistics and treatment that works”

Talking to kids about teen smoking: The FTAS (Family Talk About Smoking) paradigm

Newsflash: Kids don’t like being preached to – especially when it’s done hypocritically

A recent study assessed the impact parents have over the decisions their teenagers make concerning whether or not to ‘experiment’ with smoking cigarettes and to continue smoking in the long term, once they have tried it.

Experimenting with smoking represents a form of risk-taking for some teens while it can serve as the onset of long-term chronic cigarette smoking for others. Deciding which group a given teenager is a part of during the initial stage of experimentation is difficult, and figuring out whether it is possible to influence the trajectory of future behavior in teens is the focus of this line of research. The researchers theorized that variations in communication between parents and their teenagers might shine some light on these all-important issues.

So the researchers developed the Family Talk about Smoking paradigm, or FTAS, a method of standardizing the interaction and communication between teen smokers and their parents who had either smoked in the past or currently smoke. It’s a neat method that allowed them to study parent-teen interactions in a natural setting.

What is the FTAS – Assessing parent-teen communication

The FTAS is a 10-minute, semi-structured family interaction paradigm. It employs using a flip card the parent or teen are asked to read to one another. They take turns and each flip card initiates a conversation ‘trigger’ designed to stimulate smoking-related conversation. The cards focused on five triggers: a) “How people in our family feel about cigarette smoking,” (this is read by the teen), “My experiences with cigarette smoking” (by the parent), “How today’s teens make decisions about cigarette smoking,” (by the teen with this wording used to break open discussion without forcing teen to expose his own experience unless he wants to), and “What parent do if they find out their teen has become a smoker” (by the parent).

The families were given 10 minutes for each topic and were encouraged to use the entire time. Some families used the full ten minutes for some topics, and used less for others while other families sped through them all without lingering on specifics.

It may seem a little contrived and forced, but steps were taken to allow free-flowing conversations between parents and their teens. The FTAS discussion took place in the home environment in order to make the family more comfortable and there was a warm -up exercise to get everyone talking about their family life. When the time came for the FTAS discussion, the field staff left the room and observed the interaction remotely.

So, let’s look at what was measured.

A coding system was used to measure the:

  • Level of disapproval the teenager received from the parent
  • Just how clearly the parent elaborated on consequences for smoking cigarettes
  • Whether the parent conveyed to the teen that he expected she would or wouldn’t be a smoker
  • The quality of personal disclosure by the parent about his own smoking struggles or non-smoking

The teens and their parents were assessed initially and were then revisited 6 months after the baseline assessment to determine whether the family’s communication affected teen smoking 6 months later. It’s important to note: 90% of parents involved in the study had had some involvement with smoking at some point in their lives.

The patterns of communication between the teens involved in the study and their parent(s) varied depending on whether the teen (and his parent ) were smokers themselves. The teen’s receptivity to his parent’s attitude and communication about teenage smoking, and about his/her particular smoking, was directly affected by whether the parent smoked currently, or in the past, and what the parent’s attitude about it was as well as how openly the parent opened up to his teen about it.

While the study was a controlled assessment of teen-parent communication about smoking cigarettes, it’s important to note its implications for family communication about substance abuse, and other taboo issues. There’s no doubt that communication is extremely important when it comes to these topics and that open communication often leads to better outcomes than ignoring or avoiding these issues.

The results – Talking to teens about smoking can help if it’s done right

Communication patterns and their effect depended greatly on who the teen was speaking to – with mothers, expressing more positive expectancies about cigarette smoking predicted more persistent smoking while with fathers more disapproval during conversations predicted lower chances of persistent smoking.

The researchers found that non-smoking parents who had frequent and quality communication with their teenager about smoking had a consistently positive effect on reducing the chances that their teen will continue to smoke. However, the results revealed that if the parent smoked their influence through communication was much more complicated. For fathers, past smoking combined with a lot of teen disclosure predicted much greater likelihood of continued smoking – it’s the “war story” sort of effect with parent and teen sharing experiences and little disapproval leading to no reduction in experimentation. For currently smoking mothers the important factor was also disclosure but this time by the parent – if the mother shared little about her experiences, the effect on teen smoking was small but if she shared a lot, the odds of persistent teen smoking went way down. When non-smoking mothers talked a lot about the consequences of smoking, the probability of persistent teen smoking went up – kids don’t like being preached to.

What does it all mean?

Overall, the study’s results suggest that teens are highly suspect of hypocritical preaching and are very much influenced by communication patterns with their parents. Specifically, the study revealed that when a mother was a current smoker, if she communicated openly to her teenager that she had struggles about smoking and the difficulty of quitting, there was a positive effect on the teen’s eventual decision to stop. But for former smoking fathers and non-smoking mothers, talking at length about the teen’s experiences smoking and about the negative consequences of smoking respectively were not productive and actually increased the probability that the teen would still be smoking six months later.

As the authors note: “… current smoking mothers who are highly disclosing may acknowledge their own struggles around smoking and their difficulty asking their teens to “do what I say not what I do.” Openness about this struggle may help adolescents deal with the issue of “mixed messages” when a parent is a smoker. In contrast, the impact of maternal elaboration of rules may be attenuated when mothers have been active smokers because the parents’ own behavior is contradictory.” Reducing hypocritical messages and communicating openly about these difficult issues seems to be the way to go.

When taking all these findings into account it would seem that passivity on the part of a parent rather than communicating with the teen seems to be received by the teen as a silent approval of smoking. However a parent’s open and transparent sharing with his teen about his own regretted decisions, and the difficulty that has resulted, can have a very positive effect on the decisions the teen makes.

The bigger picture

If these things are true with cigarette smoking, would they not also be true regarding experimentation with other substances? Can parents open up about their experiences to their teens, expose their difficulties and vulnerabilities, and give the teen the gift of a loving parent’s experience?

Maybe more importantly, when thinking about the right ways to engage in teen-parent communication about difficult issues, a little insight into family dynamics that may have an impact on the discussion seems crucial. I often get questions from parents I know about the most appropriate way to talk to kids about drug use. This research seems to carry the following message – don’t preach if you haven’t been there and don’t be hypocritical if you have – open communication that guides the teen toward the desired behavior without letting them discount the impact of their choices seems the best idea.

Before we go, it’s important to note that this study used only a six-month follow-up and that future studies should really examine more long-term effects of family communication patterns in order to increase our confidence in these results. It’s possible that family communication can have a long-lasting effect or that it needs to be re-enforced on an ongoing basis. This study doesn’t tell us much about that.


Lauren S. Wakschlag, Aaron Metzger, Anne Darfler, Joyce Ho, Robin Mermelstein, and Paul J. Rathouz (2010). The Family Talk About Smoking (FTAS) Paradigm: New Directions for Assessing Parent–Teen Communications About Smoking. Nicotine and Tobacco Research.

420, smoking weed, and drug problems : Marijuana facts

Co-authored by: Jamie Felzer

It’s April 20th, or 4-20, and anyone who smokes marijuana knows what that means – It’s time to smoke weed- a lot of weed!

In honor of this “stoner” holiday, or perhaps in reverence of its implications, I wanted to put together a post that explored some recent findings having to do with the most commonly used illegal substance in the U.S.
These two studies deal specifically with smoking weed, teenagers, and drug problems.

Study 1 – Misconceptions of marijuana use prevalence

An article in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs has revealed that most young adults greatly overestimate how many of their peers smoke weed. Teens surveyed believed that 98% of their peers smoked marijuana at least once a year – In reality, only 51.5% off the teens reported actually ever smoking marijuana.

To make matters worse, even though only 15% of the teens reported using once a month or more, the estimate among peers was closer to 65%!!! Since we know that perception of peer behavior affects adolescents greatly, such misconceptions can easily lead to false peer-pressure towards marijuana use.

So next time instead of assuming everyone smokes weed, think again.It’s one of the most commonly used drugs but the notion that everyone smokes weed is simply wrong.

Reference: Kilmer, Walker, Lee, Palmer, Mallett, Fabiano, & Larrimer (2006). Misperceptions of College Students Marijuana use: Implications for Prevention. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 67, pp. 277-281.

Study 2 – Teens reducing use can reduce marijuana dependence risk

This next study dealt with early patterns of weed smoking as possible predictors of later problems use. They followed more than 1500 respondents from adolescence (ages 15-17) into young adulthood (ages 21-24).

The article revealed some interesting overall patterns, but I’ll keep the results short and simple, it is 4-20 after all…

The good news? Teens who reduced their use during the first phase of the study (the teens years) were at a significantly lower risk for marijuana dependence and regular use in early adulthood. This suggests that successful interventions may be effective at reducing later problem use.

The bad news? All marijuana smokers who used at least weekly showed the highest risk for later problems even if they reduced their use… This is not that surprising of a finding though since dependence usually involves regular use.

The bottom line? Reducing marijuana use at any stage will lower your risk for later problem use, but those who find themselves smoking often are most likely to end up in some trouble even if they try to cut down. Knowledge is power, so if you think you might be at risk and are concerned, talking to someone can’t hurt. Knowing marijuana facts can’t hurt either.

Reference: Swift, Coffey, Carlin, Degenhardt, Calabria & Patton (2009). Are adolescents who moderate their cannabis use at lower risk of later regular and dependent cannabis use? Addiction, 104, pp 806-814.

For a different view on 420, see this video:

Does alcohol on T.V. make for more alcohol in the hand?

Dirk Hanson

The title of the Dutch study, published in the journal Alcohol & Alcoholism, is unambiguous: “Alcohol Portrayal on Television Affects Actual Drinking Behaviour.”

It is an easy and familiar accusation that has been levied at violent video games, drug use heavy movies, and alcohol advertising. But what is the actual evidence for it? Leave it to a group of Dutch scientists to design a practical experiment to test the proposition when it comes to drinking.  In a noble attempt to get around the self-reporting problem, the authors of the study went directly to the heart of the problem. They built a “bar laboratory” on the campus of Radboud University, Nijmegen, The Netherlands. Continue reading “Does alcohol on T.V. make for more alcohol in the hand?”

Monitoring the Future by NIDA: Teen alcohol and drug use data from a national survey

Teen drug useOne of the perks of being an alcohol, drug use, and addiction researcher, as well as of writing for a website like this and Psychology Today, is that sometimes we get to talk to people that most can’t reach or to receive information that others might not have access to. NIDA‘s Monitoring the Future, a national survey of about 50,000 teens between 8th and 12th grades is a huge annual undertaking the results of which will be released tomorrow for general consumption.

But we got a little sneak peek before everyone else.

If you follow this sort of stuff, you know that teen alcohol and drug use is always shifting as new drugs become more popular and others lose favor with that group of Americans that can’t make up their minds. This year seems to give us more of the same.

Monitoring the future: Early alcohol and drug use results

  1. Daily marijuana use, after being on the decline for a short while is apparently rising once again among teens, following last year’s continuing trend of a reduction in teens’ perceptions of marijuana harmfulness – We’ve written on A3 about some of the specific issues relevant to marijuana use including writing about Marijuana’s addictive potential and its medical benefit. There’s no doubt that the national marijuana debate will continue but the idea of 8th graders smoking weed doesn’t seem to be part of anyone’s plan.
  2. Among some groups of teens drug use is proving more popular than smoking cigarettes – I guess this could be taken as evidence of the effectiveness of anti-smoking campaigns, though until we see the full numbers I’m not going to comment any further on that.
  3. While Vicodin use among high-school seniors (12th graders) is apparently down, non-medical use of prescription medications is still generally high among teens, continuing a recent upward trend – Abuse of prescription stimulants has been on the rise for a number of years as the number of prescriptions for ADHD goes up, increasing access. It is interesting to see Vicodin use go down though the data I’ve received says nothing about abuse of other prescription opiate medications such as oxycontin, so I’m not sure if the trend has to do with a general decrease in prescription opiate abuse among teens.
  4. Heroin injection rates up among high-school seniors (12th graders) – I think everyone will agree that this is a troubling trend no matter what your stance on drug use policy. The associated harms that go along with injecting drugs should be enough for us to worry about this, but again, I’ll reserve full judgment until I actually see the relevant numbers. I’m also wondering if this is a regional phenomenon or a more general trend throughout the United States.
  5. Binge drinking of alcohol is down – As we’ve written before, the vast majority of problems associated with the over consumption of alcohol (binge drinking) among high-school students has to do with the trouble they get themselves in while drunk (pregnancies, DUI accidents, and the likes), so this is an encouraging trend though hopefully it isn’t simply accounting for the above mentioned increases in marijuana and heroin use.

Some general thoughts on NIDA’s annual Monitoring the Future results

I am generally a fan of broad survey information because it gets at trends that we simply can’t predict any other way and gives us a look at the overall population rather than having to make an educated guess from a very small sample in a lab. NIDA‘s annual MTF survey is no different although until I get to see all of the final numbers (at which point there will probably be a follow-up to this article) it’s hard to make any solid conclusions. Nevertheless, I am happy to see binge drinking rates among teens going down and if it wasn’t for that pesky increase in heroin injection rates I would say that overall the survey makes it look like things are on the right tracks.

I’ve written about it before and will certainly repeat it again – I personally think that alcohol and drug use isn’t the problem we should be focusing on exclusively since it’s chronic alcohol and drug abuse and addiction that produce the most serious health and criminal problems. Unfortunately, drug use is what we get to ask about because people don’t admit to addiction and harmful abuse because of the inherent stigma. Therefore, I think that it’s important for us to continue to monitor alcohol and drug use while observing for changes in reported abuse and addiction patterns. Hopefully by combining these efforts we can get a better idea of what drugs are causing increased harm and which are falling by the wayside or producing improved outcomes in terms of resisting the development of abuse problems.

Drug abuse and teens – The adolescent addiction challenge.

Guest author: Clint Stonebraker

teen-smokingRecovery from any addiction is a difficult process. It involves an individual’s willingness to take responsibility for his or her actions, a concrete decision to make significant lifestyle changes, and the courage to repair damaged relationships. The level of emotional maturity involved in taking these steps is usually somewhat foreign to an addict.

What about a person who is suffering from addiction and is, developmentally speaking, still a child? How does this person muster the emotional maturity needed to begin the recovery process?

I had the opportunity to work with a seventeen year old whose father had recently been treated for alcoholism. The father had suffered numerous consequences related to his alcohol problem including multiple D.U.I.’s and a divorce. By the time he sought treatment, the father was motivated to make a life change. He understood the root of his life problems revolved around alcohol abuse and had a desire to take responsibility for his actions.

When it came to the son, things weren’t that simple…

The seventeen year old had also suffered numerous consequences related to his drug abuse. He had already been arrested twice and had left home four months prior to seeing me. In fact, he clearly stated the only reason he agreed to the appointment was because his father had made it a part of the criteria for the boy to come home. He still believed the problems in his life were due to others not “leaving him alone.”

teensFor decades the adolescent substance abuse problem has gotten progressively worse. There have been prevention programs which have had some success, but adolescents continue to abuse drugs and alcohol at an alarming rate.

Because of this, it is important for anyone who works with adolescents to understand this unique population:

  • The conscious motivation for most adolescents to abuse drugs and alcohol is different than that of an adult. An adolescent who engages in substance abuse is seeking fun and peer acceptance, whereas the adult is seeking pain relief.
  • In most cases adolescents have yet to face the same level of physical or emotional consequences most adult addicts have faced
  • The adult addict is responsible for all aspects of his or her life, the adolescent isn’t

These are just a few of the differences between adults and adolescents with substance abuse issues. Some of the challenges in treatment include:

  • Creating an environment in which the adolescent has fun and gains peer acceptance. Developmentally these are needs which must be addressed
  • Helping an emotionally immature child take enough internal responsibility for his or her actions to be motivated to change
  • Showing an adolescent how to maintain healthy balance in his or her emotional life, in other words, limiting the emotional extremes

The biggest mistake clinicians make in treating adolescent substance abuse is assuming the adolescent is capable of dealing with life like an adult. In most cases, an adolescent must be able to see recovery as an attractive lifestyle. An adolescent substance abuser already has a general lack of trust with adults or any other “authority” figures. It is critical to maintain patience in order to gain the trust of an adolescent. Once trust is established, it is possible to reach an adolescent at their level.

When it came to this seventeen-year-old son, I knew that in order for this young man to begin the recovery process, he would need to see sobriety as an attractive lifestyle choice. I was aware of a group that held regular support group meetings specifically for young people. They also facilitated social events on the weekend.

As a part of the therapeutic process, I included his involvement with this group. The combination of counseling and a peer support system gave this young man a comprehensive plan of action.

As a result of beginning to associate sobriety with feeling good, he became more responsive to counseling. Over time he began to take more responsibility for his actions. He had a group of peers with whom he was accountable, could have fun, and network.

His father was involved in this process through his own counseling and involvement in a parent support group. Over time this young man was able to stay sober and reacclimatize himself into society.

This story illustrates key components of a process of recovery for adolescents. Over time an adolescent can begin to see the consequences of his or her actions. It is important to keep in mind what adolescents respond to. It is not one element that provides the key to adolescent recovery. It is the combination of therapy, peer support, and family involvement which provides the best opportunity for an adolescent to recover from addiction.

If we want to weaken the connection between teens and drugs, we have to start using what works.

Weeding out your significant other? The effect of marijuana on relationships

contributing co-author: Gacia Tachejian

Michael Phelps smoking weed

Being young involves quite a bit of exciting change. There’s the end of high-school, the start of college and some measure of independence, and a whole slew of new experiences.

A recent study conducted by Judith Brooks at NYU School of Medicine has revealed that one of those experiences, smoking marijuana (weed) may be associated with more relationship conflict later in life. What’s amazing about this study is that the drug use here occurred earlier in life for most of the 534 participants, while the relationship trouble was assessed around their mid- to late-twenties.

Could other factors explain this finding?!

Now you may be thinking to yourself that there are a whole lot of other aspects of a person’s life that can affect their relationship quality and their probability of smoking weed in adolescence. You’d be right, but here’s what the researchers in this study ruled out as possible confounds (the scientific name for variables that obscure findings):

  • Relationship with parents
  • Aggressive tendencies
  • adjustment difficulty
  • gender
  • education

Even after controlling for all of these things, smoking marijuana as a teen still predicted having less harmonious relationships later on in life.


All humor aside, this research is not saying that if you smoke weed you will definitely have a lower quality relationship later. What it does point out is that, on average, given a person with similar social skills, aggressive personality, and education, the one who smoked marijuana around their mid-teens is likely to have a less satisfying relationship.

UPDATE: Before you leave another angry comment about how wrong this article is to suggest that marijuana can cause any problems ever, please read my article on the difference between causality and association; this article is talking about an association, not causality.


Brook, J. S., Pahl, K., and Cohen, P. (2008). Associations between marijuana use during emerging adulthood and aspects of significant other relationship in young adulthood. Journal of Child and Family Studies, Vol 17, pg. 1-12.