Social Norms Model

Parenting strategies to prevent teen alcohol and other drug use

FCD Educational Services, whose services were integrated with Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in 2013, is a leading nonprofit provider of school-based drug education and substance abuse prevention services. During the past 38 years, FCD has been an innovator in helping schools in the U.S. and in 60 different countries around the globe maintain and strengthen the health of their students and school community. In our prevention education work with schools, FCD provides fact based health information not only to students, but to faculty and parents as well.

A significant element of our education method is a perspective called the Social Norms Model. Social Norms is a method of helping young people develop healthy habits and reduce the risk of alcohol or other drugs use. (1) Social Norms is a research-based model that consistently shows how false perceptions of substance use by young people increases their risk of early use. Young people consistently and dramatically overestimate the use of alcohol and other drugs by their peers, which feeds false assumptions such as "most kids are going to experiment" or "all high school kids drink." (2) These assumptions make it difficult for young people to see that most of their peers are making healthy choices and engaging in healthy behaviors.

Even among adults, the perception of alcohol use by teenagers is often far greater than the reality of that use. (3) A key element of the parent role is to help children build skills for independent thinking and self-confident decision-making by helping them learn to identify various media messages and peer assumptions that distort reality. Being able to distinguish between false and accurate perceptions is a developmental skill that is crucial to helping young people make healthy decisions and delay first use of alcohol. The Social Norms perspective and data from social norms surveys assures parents that most young people are attempting to make healthy choices. The reality of this message combined with the health benefits of delayed use of alcohol strengthen a young person's ability to think and reason clearly while avoiding the emotional influence of false assumptions about peer behavior.

Why is delayed use so important? Postponing first use of alcohol greatly reduces the risk of future alcohol abuse-related health problems. (4) The risk reduction benefits of delayed use of alcohol are indisputable (5) and parents should confidently communicate this reality and expect their children to engage in such healthy behavior.

For many parents, though, there can be a struggle between expressing caring messages based on health while also clarifying expectations which might include limits and consequences. The dilemma of being a friend vs. an authoritarian is often common to the role of parenting. (6) When it comes to prevention; reducing risk by supporting the growth of protective behaviors in kids, it is essential that parents be able to stand firm about research-based facts that will strengthen young people's decision-making abilities. Helping young people see basic realities about misperception, and understand the effect of early use of alcohol on the brain and emotional development, can strengthen self-confidence and enable them to make healthy choices in the face of peer behavior based on misperceptions.

Research suggests that kids do better when their parents show affection and enforce age-appropriate limits on their children's behavior. (7) It can be fine for parents to see themselves as friends to their children by sharing a sense of mutual loyalty, trust, and respect. But warmth, trust and companionship should not exist at the cost of directing and guiding the children toward healthy activities. Parents, who talk with their children about risks of early use make a stronger case with a "health-based" factual approach that supports risk reduction, than if they merely encourage their children to be careful. (8) And, we should never underestimate the value and strength of stating clearly the "parental expectation" that children will abide by the healthy behavior prescribed by parents when it comes to staying healthy.

We know, for example, that young people who start drinking before the age of 15 are four times more likely to become an alcoholic than those who wait until they are 21 years old, (9) and that a brain in transition from child to adult is especially vulnerable to addiction. We also know that alcohol and other drug use interferes with the forming of connections in a teen's brain which are intended to grow healthy without the presence of alcohol or other drugs, (10) and that risk is reduced in youths who; 1) perceive their parents disapprove of substance use, and 2) who report their parents are involved in their day-to-day activities. (11) That is why it is so important for parents to recognize that developing intimacy and trust with young people shouldn't mean "anything goes." Parents can build close, personal relationships with their kids and still remain responsible adults. Parent and adult friendship with kids should not be based on equality when it comes to setting limits and consequences to preserve health and well-being. Explaining the reasons for rules, expectations and consequences of risky behavior has been linked with development of more self-control, less aggression and more mature moral reasoning in young people. (12)

To various degrees parents can treat their children as individuals with minds of their own while at the same time identifying limits that support the child's health and safety. Parents and children can respect each other, enjoy each other's company and trust each other while maintaining health based constraints on behavior. Being the parent often means having the strength to allow your child to push back against limits that help them feel safe. Talking to kids about their thoughts, ideas and feelings within the context of family rules and expectations offers a supportive family context for kids to "protest too much" while practicing healthy behaviors supported by parents. (13)

Overall, the Social Norms approach to prevention provides an on-going reality check for parents to offer their children when they say that "everyone is doing it." At the same time, social norms data and health education such as that provided to schools, parents and students by FCD give adults fact-based health information that kids will integrate with their developing awareness of how to protect themselves, reduce risk and become healthy and responsible young adults.

Kari Yuen Maurice SoulisKari Yuen is a Regional FCD Officer and Maurice Soulis is a former Regional FCD Officer.
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