Study: Listening Keeps Kids Off Drugs

The conversations were held in private, although they were recorded, and the participants later evaluated the performance of the other participant. Researchers also evaluated the performances, looking for nagging, or demanding behavior, and whether each side listened to the other.

The teenagers were also asked whether they had used drugs or alcohol, and how much. Many, though not most, admitted to using drugs, particularly alcohol. And the researchers found a clear correlation between whether the parent took the teenager's complaints seriously, and the use of alcohol and drugs, Caughlin says.

Setting a Model

Teenagers who thought their parent wasn't listening, or taking his or her concerns seriously, were far more likely to turn to dangerous substances. The parental plea that they not do so was not taken seriously by the teen.

"I think what happens is if the parents show the teenagers that when an issue comes up, it's OK to withdraw and not really talk about it, teenagers pick up on that and they see that as a legitimate way to deal with an issue," Caughlin says. "They will turn around and do the same thing to the parents."

That suggests that the parent is laying the foundation for the effectiveness of parental counseling all during those long years when the child keeps coming up with mundane complaints. It may be more convenient to just withdraw and ignore the kid, Caughlin says, but that's likely to come back in the years ahead when the teenager withdraws and ignores a parent's advice about drugs.

Caughlin says he isn't suggesting that it's not important for parents to talk with their kids about drugs. But if they want the kids to listen, they better listen too.

By the way, not all parents flunked the test.

"Some parents do a real good job with this," Caughlin says. "When the teenagers brought up a topic they listened to them. They didn't necessarily give in, but they were responsive and explained their policy and treated the conversation as though it was something important."

And he says it's probably no coincidence that among the participants in the study, these were the kids who were less likely to use drugs.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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