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Parental Drug Perceptions

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As a parent, you put a great deal of effort into guiding your children through adolescence. You share knowledge and establish rules with the hope they’ll grow to be smart, independent, responsible, and successful.

Some lessons are harder to teach than others. This is especially true when parenthood makes you rethink your position on alcohol, tobacco, and drugs despite personal beliefs you might have once had. Whether you are adamantly opposed or trying to find the best way to set rules against the use of substances, it’s important to understand that the positive guidance of a parent can have a strong influence in preventing substance abuse in children.

Would education and leniency make your children more responsible? Would strict rules have the opposite effect and drive them to abuse drugs?

Project Know surveyed over 2,000 adults on the topic of parenting and substance use. The findings reveal that parents are wrestling with the perceived danger of substances, their own perceptions, and how to best approach the topic of drugs and alcohol with their children.

Under Parental Influence

The future leaves a lot to uncertainty, and it can be difficult to envision what kind of impact you might have when setting rules and talking to your children about drugs and alcohol. The same lessons imparted by your own parents can shed some light and clear up a little uncertainty.

In our survey, more than 71 percent of respondents believed they would be somewhat or very strict with their children regarding substance abuse. Respondents were then asked how their position on drugs and alcohol compared with that of their own parents.

Only 23 percent said they would adopt a less strict attitude. The majority of respondents, a mix of parents and non-parents, said they would either maintain the same stance (41.5), be somewhat stricter (21.5 percent), or much stricter (14 percent).

We can see how lessons and rules are carried beyond adolescence, as respondents base their stance on the guidance given by their own parents. Based on our findings, it’s reasonable to believe that parents have substantial influence over their children who eventually adopt their parent’s position on drugs and alcohol when they reach adulthood.

As a parent, finding the right balance of leniency and rigidity is important. A 2014 study across six countries found that certain parenting styles may lead to increased adolescent drug use. Overly strict, as well as neglectful or very lenient parents, saw the highest rates of drug use in their teens.

Adult Attitudes on Adolescent Substance Use

One of the most interesting results from the study related to how perceptions change as people become parents. Substances that many adults tried in their youth became off-limits to their children.

As an example, 65 percent of respondents tried alcohol before the age of 18. The same percentage of respondents then stated that their children would need to be at least 18 or older before it would be acceptable for them to try alcohol, and 3 percent said that it would never be acceptable.

We see similar perception shifts with drugs, like marijuana. Thirty-nine percent of respondents tried it before the age of 18, but only 14 percent would be willing to let their children try it at the same age.

Despite the varying beliefs on acceptable ages for substance use, the majority agree that drug and alcohol education is important – 77 percent of respondents believe that it’s best to educate children on the dangers of substance use before the age of 13.

Attitudes on Substance Use Before Adulthood

While many parents agree that substance use among minors is something that should be addressed, there is a wide gap in what is considered acceptable behavior between alcohol and drug use. For example, 41 percent of respondents felt that it would be acceptable for a youth under the age of 21 to consume alcohol under adult supervision. Yet only 16 percent of respondents stated that marijuana use under adult supervision would be acceptable.

While 92 percent were adamantly against opioid use under the age of 21, only 61 percent opposed the use of marijuana, and just 47 percent opposed the use of alcohol for the same ages. From these responses, it’s clear that parents may not be consistent with their rules and guidance surrounding different substances. Being lenient with one substance, like alcohol, can potentially create confusion in minors around the assumed-tolerance of using other substances.

Parental Drug Concerns

When asked how they would react to discovering their children have used certain substances, there was a marked concern for individual substances.

The majority of parents (over 90 percent) would be greatly concerned over the discovery of opioid and methamphetamine use, with a large majority (77 percent) concerned about the use of hallucinogens. Like the previous group, the concern drops dramatically for marijuana (just 38 percent) and alcohol (39 percent). Forty-five percent of parents reported they would be very concerned regarding youth tobacco use.

An alarming number of respondents noted little to no concern over the discover of alcohol use. Parents might have a more relaxed approach to alcohol, but the consequences can be just as deadly as drugs – if not more so. Data from the CDC asserts that, on average, nearly 107,000 deaths are attributed annually to alcohol use.

Parents also seemed less concerned with tobacco and marijuana use despite their apparent dangers. The CDC calculated that more than 480,000 deaths per year occur as a result of tobacco use.

The substances parents perceive as the least distressing actually have fatal potential. We can make strides toward reducing the death toll if we take a more inclusive approach to education, limit leniency, and guide children away from any kind of substance use.

Concerning Substances

As parents age, it seems the perceptions surrounding substance use shifts. While respondents under age 30 were less concerned with marijuana than alcohol, concern for marijuana overtook alcohol among parents in their 40s before dropping again. One reason we may see concern peak at this point could be that adults in their 40s are the most likely to actually have teenage children of their own. According to the CDC, the average age of mothers at their first birth is 26, meaning their child will be 14 by the time they enter their 40s.

In fact, as parents age we can see a consistent increase in concern over their children using drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. It’s not until after parents reach the 40 to 49 age range that concern begins to level off, though it still remains high for most substances.


We want what’s best for our children, and it’s difficult to decide exactly how we’ll guide them through muddy waters when our perceptions of substances are murky and varied among our adult peers.

Trying to weigh the gravity of individual substances is one reason the balance of strictness and leniency is so challenging. Often, the best way to instill values your children will carry into adulthood is through education and consistent guidance.

There’s no better time than now to speak with your family about substance abuse. Resource materials and professionals are available 24/7, providing everything you need to keep your loved ones educated and safe. Visit or call for more information.


We surveyed more than 2,000 respondents from the United States on questions regarding parenting and substance use. Of respondents, 1,060 identified as male, 986 identified as female, and four identified as other. Four percent were between the ages of 18 and 20. Forty-one percent were between the ages of 21 and 29. Thirty-four percent were between the ages of 30 and 39. Eleven percent were between the ages of 40 and 49. Ten percent were 50 or older.



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