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Teens Who Can Express Themselves More Likely to Avoid Drugs

New research shows that teens who are able to express themselves with their moms are better able to resist peer pressure and say no to drugs and alcohol.

Dec. 23, 2011 -- When New York City stock broker Karen N. was raising her now 27-year-old daughter, dinners were never quiet -- especially during Kimberly’s teen years.

The mom and daughter often went at it about grades, money, chores, and friends. “You name it and we discussed it,” she says. “Kimberly never had any trouble telling me how she felt and why she felt that way. I didn’t always agree, but I always let her speak her mind.”

And neither of them would change a thing. Kimberly sailed through her teen years, excelled at school, and never got mixed up with drugs or alcohol. The two even work together as brokers today.

New research shows that teens like Kimberly who are able to express themselves to their moms are better able to resist peer pressure and say no to drugs and alcohol.

The findings appear in Child Development.

Researchers interviewed more than 150 teens and their parents about substance use and abuse, daily interactions, and relationships with friends. The teens who were able to hold their own in discussions with their moms particularly about grades, money, rules, and friends were better prepared to stand up to their peers, the study showed.

“Parents who can have the right kind of discussions with their kids are setting their children up to handle peer influences,” says study author Dave Szwedo. He is a doctoral student at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

What are the right kinds of discussions? “They are calm and reasonable,” he says. “They are not based on shouting or whining. They allow kids a chance to be heard.”

Kids Who Say No to Mom Also Say No to Drugs, Alcohol

“Let your children know that disagreements can be solved without emotions that bring on shouting and whining,” Szwedo says. The teens in the study were 13, 15, and 16 during the time that they were interviewed. But “it is never too late or too early to show kids that arguments or discussions can be held in this way,” he says.

“The teenage years don’t have to be tumultuous if parents can work out any disagreement with their kids in a reasonable, calm way,” Szwedo tells WebMD.

More research is needed to see how and if the new findings apply to teens in late adolescence.

The findings make sense to says Gail Saltz, MD, a New York City-based psychiatrist who has teen daughters. “The mother-daughter relationship is a template for a lot of future relationships and how to manage them,” she says.

Adolescence is the time of finding your own identity. “Disagreement is part of this gig, and some parents and kids deal with this better than others,” Saltz says.

At home and outside of the home with peers, it is about learning how to agree to disagree and still maintain the relationship, she says.

As a family therapist at Caron Treatment Centers in New York City, Paul Hokemeyer, PhD, often sees teens and young adults with substance abuse problems who may not have been able to hold their own when discussing certain hot topics with their parents.

“Arguments and discussions can help kids develop their own sense of identity,” Hokemeyer says. If they can’t find themselves at home, they will be more apt to do so outside of the home.

“Home needs to be a place where they can process emotions -- pain, disappointment, and anxiety -- in a healthy way,” he says. “And when they can’t, they may turn toward drugs and alcohol or be more susceptible to peer pressure.”

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