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Adolescence: When Young People Use, Parents
Seldom Know

New York Times, October 3, 2006

Parents consistently and substantially underestimate their children’s use of alcohol and other drugs, a new study has found.

Researchers interviewed 591 adolescents ages 12 to 17 about their drug and alcohol use and then questioned at least one parent of each about what he or she thought the children were using. The analysis appears in the October issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

Parents consistently said they believed that their children were using substances less frequently than the children reported. Alcohol use was most common, with 54.4 percent of the teenagers reporting having consumed at least one drink in their lifetimes, and 23.6 percent saying they had been intoxicated. But only 30.5 percent of parents believed that their children had ever had a drink, and only 8.1 percent said their children had ever been drunk.

While 44 percent of the adolescents reported smoking cigarettes, only 27 percent of their parents knew they smoked.

Almost 23 percent of the adolescents admitted to using marijuana, while only 13.2 percent of their parents were aware of it.

With drugs other than marijuana, the results were similar: 8.5 percent of teenagers said they had used other drugs, while 3.1 percent of parents knew it.

“Parents of 12- and 13-year-olds had the lowest rates of knowledge,” said Dr. Laura J. Bierut, the senior author of the study and an associate professor of psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis. “That’s worrisome, because there is good evidence that the younger you start to use substances, the more likely you are to develop addiction.”

“Children are not telling you about their drug use,” Dr. Bierut added. “You have to ask. Kids have access to drugs, they use them, and most parents are clueless.”