Parent-Child Communication about Adolescent Tobacco and Alcohol Use: What Do Parents Say and Does It Affect Youth Behavior?

Article excerpt

Parent-child communication about tobacco and alcohol use is assumed to be critical to child use of these substances, but it rarely has been systematically described and related to adolescent use. This study included a national sample of 537 adolescent-parent pairs interviewed by telephone at baseline and again 1 year later. Factor analysis of parent reports of communication identified 3 domains: rules and discipline, consequences and circumstances, and media influences. Communication in these domains varied by family characteristics, including parents' substance use and mother's education level. Contrary to assumptions, parent-child communication was not related to initiation of smoking or drinking. Additional analyses suggested, however, that parent-child communication about rules and discipline predicted escalation of use.

Key Words: adolescents, alcohol use, parent-child communication, tobacco use.

The purpose of this article is to examine the nature and effects of parent-child communication about tobacco and alcohol use on adolescent use of these substances. Although many attributes of the family environment-ranging from family structure to the quality of family relationships-have been investigated as risk and protective factors for adolescent substance use, parent-child communication has received limited research attention. Parent-- child communication is presumably fundamental to understanding how parents influence their children's decisions about tobacco and alcohol use. Through verbal communication parents most directly express to their children their feelings and concerns about substance use and expectations for behavior. One of the year 2000 national health objectives for adolescents is to increase family communication related to tobacco, alcohol, and other drug use (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1990). The presumed importance of parent-child communication about substance use is reflected in family-based approaches to substance use prevention, most of which focus on improving family functioning and parenting skills, including communication (Ashery, Robertson, & Kumpfer, 1998; Grover, 1998). As a recent example, a primary goal of the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign is to establish good communication about substance use between youth and their parents as a deterrent to youths' use (McCaffrey, 1999).

Results of the few studies that have directly examined parent-child communication about substance use suggest that continued investigation is needed because of both inconsistent findings and methodological issues. The studies generally provide evidence of a beneficial relationship (Andrews, Hops, Ary, Tildesley, & Harris, 1993; Brody, Flor, Hollett-Wright, & McCoy, 1998; Jackson & Henriksen, 1997; Partnership for a Drug-Free America, 1999), although some negative effects of parent-child communication on youth substance use also have been reported (Andrews et al.). The studies by Brody and colleagues and by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America were cross-sectional, precluding the ability to attribute a protective effect to parent-child communication. In addition, the Brody study examined the relationship between parent-child communication and adolescent alcohol use norms, so the relationship between communication and alcohol use behavior is not known. Apart from these etiologic studies, evidence of the impact of parent-child communication on youth substance use might be expected from the evaluations of family-based prevention efforts, but this is not yet the case. Although evaluation studies have reported that family interventions can have positive effects on family functioning, including communication (Grover, 1998), there is no evidence to suggest that improved family functioning deters youth substance use. This is because most family interventions have targeted precursors to youth substance use (e.g., conduct disorder) (Ashery et al., 1998; Grover), hence effects of enhanced parent-child communication on substance use have not been assessed. …

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