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When is the right time to talk to kids about alcohol and marijuana use? Study says earlier than you might think

November 05, 2015

One in 10 high school students has driven under the influence of alcohol or marijuana within the last 30 days.

One in five high school students has ridden with someone who is driving under the influence within the last 30 days.

Car crashes are the leading cause of death for teens in this country, and of the teenagers who die in car crashes about 50% of them had alcohol or marijuana in their system.

I don’t know about you, but those statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are shocking and terrifying to me.

How can we prevent our teenagers from risking their lives by driving under the influence or riding in a car where the driver is under the influence?

Here’s what we already know:

  • For teens that are of driving age, the more frequently they use alcohol or marijuana, the more often they drive while under the influence.
  • A teenager’s beliefs about alcohol and marijuana affect their likelihood to use them
  • Frequency of exposure to adults or peers who use alcohol or marijuana affect a teen’s likelihood to engage in the same behaviors
  • Alcohol and marijuana use increases dramatically between eighth grade and 10th grade, when most teenagers become of driving age
  • Greater parental involvement and respect for parents contributes to a lower likelihood of using alcohol and marijuana

New study highlights need for earlier intervention

A study published in the journal Pediatrics sheds new light on when and how we can prevent these dangerous behaviors of driving while under the influence or riding with a driver who is under the influence.

The study

Researchers conducted a confidential survey of students in sixth and seventh grade. Students were asked about their alcohol and marijuana usage, their beliefs about these substances and their exposure via friends or family to alcohol and marijuana.

These same students were questioned again two years later and four years later (as the teens were reaching the legal driving age around 10th grade). They were asked again about their beliefs and exposure to these substances of abuse. They were also asked about the frequency with which they have driven while under the influence or ridden with another driver who was under the influence.

What we learned

The surveys showed that the greatest predictor of whether a pre-teen will become a teen who drives while under the influence or rides with another who is under the influence is what they believe about marijuana. Those with a more positive impression of marijuana were more likely to drive or ride with someone under the influence.

Did you get that? It wasn’t what they did in middle school that predicted the risky behavior down the road; it was what they believed.

And it wasn’t just what they believed when they got in the car with their friends as a 10th grader that was important. The beliefs that would shape this behavior were already present four years earlier!

What this means for us as parents is that if we wait until we have given our teenager the keys to our car before we talk about alcohol and marijuana use, we have missed a huge opportunity for intervention.

Our kids are bombarded by influences all around them, and if we want our values to be counted as a significant influence, we must act early and often. This study indicates that talking to your pre-teen about alcohol and marijuana use around sixth grade isn’t too soon.

Start the conversation with your pre-teen. Open up the door for an honest dialogue and continue to have these discussions throughout their adolescence.

Seize the opportunity for your influence to shape the decisions that your child will make for years to come. You won’t be sorry you did.