Study: Listening Keeps Kids Off Drugs

If a parent doesn't listen to a teenager who wants to talk about a complaint, no matter how trivial, it's unlikely the teenager will listen to the parent when it comes to life or death issues.

New research out of the University of Illinois suggests that advertisements that plead with parents to talk with their kids about drugs aren't telling the complete story, says John Caughlin, professor of speech communication at the university's Urbana-Champaign campus.

"If you haven't been listening to your child all along, it's unrealistic to expect that you are going to have this one conversation where you sit down and talk about drugs and that's going to be the magic bullet," says John Caughlin, professor of speech communication at the university's Urbana-Champaign campus.

Caughlin and a colleague, Rachel S. Malis, now at Northwestern University, set out to put a scientific face on a subject that is really quite hard to pin down. They wanted to know if there is a clear link between how a parent deals with an adolescent's complaints or conflicts, and the likelihood that the adolescent will turn to drugs.

Their study, published in the current issue of the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, offers evidence that there is indeed a clear link. Teenagers who participated in the study were much more likely to become involved with drugs and alcohol if they thought their parents were not taking their complaints seriously, even regarding matters that seem mundane and trivial.

Hard to Test

What appears to be happening, Caughlin says, is a teenager who thinks his or her complaints are not being taken seriously by the parent loses some self esteem, and loss of self esteem has been shown in many other studies to be related to drug and alcohol abuse.

So when a father laughs off a request from a son who wants to date more, as one father did during the study, the teenager is left diminished in his own eyes. In this case, as in many others, the teenager whose request was not taken seriously admitted using alcohol and drugs.

As Caughlin admits, this is a tough thing to prove, because it's not possible to conduct long term experiments with real families. He and his fellow researchers can't lay down a set of rules for parents to follow and see what happens a few years down the road.

So instead they are left with the subjective opinions of participants in the study, and the outside evaluations of researchers who listened to tape recordings of the parent-child dialogues and formed an independent judgment of what was going on. Neither of the avenues is ideal, but together they provide a reasonable approach to the subject, Caughlin says.

The researchers studied 57 pairs of mothers or dads, teamed with sons or daughters. Both the adults and the teenagers were asked to list something they would like to see changed, providing topics of conversation with the likelihood of conflict. The use of alcohol and drugs was added to the list of topics by the researchers.

"Most of the teenagers wanted to talk about a bigger allowance, or staying out later, or those kinds of topics," Caughlin says. "The parents wanted to talk about the teen coming home on time, or cleaning up his [or her] room, things that seemed pretty mundane."

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.