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Parenting, Child Development, and Substance Abuse


I Introduction
II Parenting style
III Love hormone
IV Being interested in your teenager’s life; Child Welfare system
V Parents’ substance use impacts teens
VI Conclusion and key learnings
VII Resources
VIII References

--Submitted by Seher Shafiq, Parent Action on Drugs

I Introduction

How parents connect with their children and show affection and understanding has a significant impact on risk factors for future substance use. From parenting styles to parents’ own substance use habits, parents play an important role in influencing their children’s future decisions. This feature explores four key studies that demonstrate how parents’ behaviours can impact their children. The findings suggest that parents should adopt an understanding and affectionate relationship with their children (although still have rules) in order to increase youth resiliency and prevent risky behaviour in the future.

II Parenting style

A study by the European Institute of Studies on Prevention (IREFREA) looked at how parenting styles influence teenager drug use (alcohol, tobacco, cannabis).  After interviews with 7,718 youth between the ages of 11–19 (3,774 males and 3,944 females), the study found that showing affection, emotions and understanding are very important factors in keeping teenagers from using drugs.

Two variables – parental control and affection – were used to determine what type of parent-child relationship is the least likely to lead to substance abuse in youth in a European context.

Four parenting styles were identified in the study: authoritative (warm yet strict), authoritarian (strict and not warm), neglectful (neither warm nor strict), and indulgent (warm but not strict). The indulgent and authoritative parenting styles both indicated better outcomes compared to authoritarian and neglectful styles.   

An authoritative model of parenting is where parents "give clear rules and affectionately and flexibly reason with the children when asking for their compliance," whereas parents in an authoritarian model are less affectionate. Parents in the indulgent and neglectful models have a low level of control over their children.

It has previously been found that “adolescents from authoritative households use less illegal drugs, are more resilient, achieve better academic performance, have better psychological competence, and better adaptive strategies, and are less involved in the broad-spectrum of behaviour problems”.  [1] In indulgent and authoritative households, an environment of dialogue, acceptance, and affection also encourages increased self-confidence.

III Love hormone

It has been found that a lack of resilience to addictive behaviours may be connected to poor development of the “love hormone”, or oxytocin system growing up. Oxytocin is a hormone that plays a significant role in social interactions, mother-child behaviour, and partnerships. Babies do have oxytocin when they are born, but the oxytocin system is not fully developed until age three, which means that many factors – both internal and external – can influence development.

Dr. Femke Buiseman-Piljman of the University of Adelaide believes that factors influencing the development of the oxytocin system include gender, genetics, environment and experiences. She thinks that as early as age four, risk factors for drug addiction can already be present. Oxytocin does have the ability to decrease stress and the pleasure of drugs, but not unless the system develops properly. She believes that adverse experiences in a child’s early years, such as a difficult birth, abuse, disruption to parent-child bonding, or a significant infection, can significantly impact the oxytocin system. Further research on the development of the oxytocin system in early childhood may inform preventative interventions for substance use in the future.  

IV Being interested in your teenager’s life: Child welfare system [2]

When parents and caregivers are perceived by teenagers as being actively involved and interested in their lives, there is a higher chance that the adolescents will avoid substance abuse. This is because youth who have support from their parents have a better sense of self, and improved mental health, and are thus less likely to engage in high-risk behaviour such as substance use. Teens from two-parent households, as well as those who reported feeling close to their parents, were less likely to engage in drug use.

Through collecting data from two national health surveys, the study compared the likelihood of substance abuse for teens in the child welfare system, versus those who are not. One survey was of 730 children ages 12–14 who were part of the US child welfare system, while the other survey covered 4,445 children ages 12–15 who were not part of the US child welfare system. The study finds that teens in the US child welfare system are more likely to have tried marijuana, inhalants, and hard drugs. However, this group was not more likely to have tried alcohol – 40% of all respondents in both surveys admitted to drinking at some point in the past.

The same study found that teens who exhibited delinquent behaviour, such as shoplifting, using a weapon, or stealing, were more likely to engage in drug and alcohol abuse.

It is important to recognize the difference in sample size for the two surveys in this study; almost five times as many teens that were not in the child welfare system were interviewed. Since the two surveys had such a vast gap in number of respondents, more research is probably needed to prove that teens in the child welfare system are more likely to engage in substance abuse.

V Parents’ substance use impacts teens

A study [3] examined patterns associated with substance use over 27 years, from 1977–2004. The research included 655 parents and a total of 1,227 offspring over three generations. The study kept track of substance use over time, when it would occur, decline, and how parents would influence their children. This study found that the children of parents who use marijuana, alcohol, and other drugs have a higher chance of developing the same habits. Children were five times more likely to use alcohol if their parents were alcohol users, two times more likely to use marijuana if their parents were marijuana users, and two times more likely to use other drugs if their parents also used other drugs.

VI Conclusion and key learnings

Showing interest and affection towards children can help prevent future substance use/abuse. Parents showing involvement and interest in teenagers’ lives can help them avoid substance abuse through improved mental health. Parental influence on their children starts in the formative years, and by age four risk factors for addiction can already exist. The indulgent and authoritative parenting styles work best in preventing teen drug use. Practitioners should encourage parents to set clear rules and negotiate with their children about limits and consequences to prevent teen drug use. Encouraging affection and acceptance is also key to relationship building with youth to prevent teen drug use. Parents are role models for their children, and parental use of alcohol or other drugs can make children many times more likely to develop the same habits in the future. To increase resiliency in teens, practitioners should encourage parents to adopt an understanding, affectionate approach to their children, which will reduce addictive and risky behaviours in their teens in the future.  


Strengthening Families for Parents and Youth - Final Report from Toronto trials (2009-2011)

Parent Action Pack

Having Authoritarian parents increases risk of drug use in adolescents, European study finds

Teens in child welfare system show higher drug abuse rate

Future generations could inherit drug and alcohol use


1. Cited by Calafat et. al, p 186: Amador Calafat, Fernando García, Montse Juan, Elisardo Becoña, José Ramón Fernández-Hermida. Which parenting style is more protective against adolescent substance use? Evidence within the European context. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 2014; 138: 185 DOI: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2014.02.705

2. Fettes, D. L., Aarons, G. A., & Green, A. E. Higher rates of adolescent substance use in child welfare versus community populations in the United States.Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, November 2013

3. Kelly E. Knight, Scott Menard, Sara B. Simmons. Intergenerational Continuity of Substance Use. Substance Use & Misuse, 2014; 49 (3): 221 DOI:10.3109/10826084.2013.824478