Kids gameThe research for my book Growing Up Too Fast1 surveyed over 5,000 middle school students and found that the environments of middle school students were more like their parents’ environments when their parents were in high school or even college. Now, a recent survey by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA)2 at Columbia University suggests that teens are abusing alcohol and drugs to a greater degree than their parents even considered in high school or beyond. The high school students for which this survey is reported are the same peer group surveyed for my book, because those middle school students are now in high school.


Half of teen party goers acknowledged that that alcohol, marijuana or both were usually available at the parties they attended, and one third of the teens reported that parents weren’t around at parties they attended. Twenty-seven percent of teens said that drugs were their greatest concern. By age 17 almost half said they had attended a party where teens were drinking alcohol, smoking pot or using cocaine, Ecstasy or prescription drugs while a parent was present, and 70% of the teens said they’ve been offered an illegal drug.


Parents of the teens surveyed showed great naiveté related to teens’ substance abuse. Eighty percent of these teens’ parents believed that neither alcohol nor drugs were available at the parties their teens attended and 98% claimed they were normally present during the parties their teens hosted, despite one third of their children saying that parents are rarely at the parties attended. While 99% of the parents say they would never serve alcohol to teens at a party, their teenagers report differently. Twenty-eight percent of them reported drinking and using drugs at parties where parents were present and as mentioned above, by age 17 that percentage increases to almost half. Apparently the parents are either not reporting honestly or are “looking the other way.”


Parents should prepare teens for college where the party scene and drinking and drugs often spell the difference between dropping out and graduating. In her book The Parent’s Guide to College Life3, Raskin points out the average number of admitted drinks for students with D’s and F’s is 9 1/2 per week. Seventeen hundred college students die a year and almost 600,000 suffer unintentional injuries because of drinking. There are also 97,000 reported cases of sexual assault tied to alcohol. When teens and parents visit colleges, it may be best to ask questions about the extent of alcohol and drug abuse on college campuses. When parents express concerns, colleges may take these problems more seriously.


Sexual activity is also on the rise and according to our study, the average age of first sexual intercourse is now 15, this is freshman or sophomore year in high school. A 2005 Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP)4 survey found that 55% of boys and 54% of girls between the ages of 15 and 19 had participated in oral sex and only 9% of them indicated they had used condoms. Forty-nine percent of boys and 53% of girls of similar ages reported having had sexual intercourse. According to a 1998 study by the Kaiser Foundation and YM Magazine5, 19% of those who reported sexual behavior believed they wouldn’t have became sexually involved except for the influence of drugs and alcohol. There’s plenty of peer pressure on teens to become sexually active, and there are teens who say, “It’s childish to still be a virgin by high school graduation.”


GirlsWhile most of my discussion with teens takes place in the privacy of my clinic office, occasionally I have the opportunity to address an entire audience of teenagers in a middle or high school. For those large audience opportunities, I typically request teen questions beforehand. There’s an advantage to being prepared!

Parents and teachers may be interested in knowing the most frequently asked questions that came from a recent high school audience. You’ve probably already guessed that the topic asked about most was sex! And while I answered the “sex” questions last, in hopes of keeping the audience alert, just the topic announcement was greeted by an excited roar. The actual questions revealed plenty of serious worries about AIDS, STD’s and pregnancies, so despite the joys of their very early sexual lives, kids had plenty of concerns. Some asked how to protect themselves from physical and sexual abuse and wanted to understand how to define abusive behavior.

Next in frequency were the questions about alcohol and drugs—and these came both from students who proclaimed drugs shouldn’t be considered so bad, as well as from those who wanted to know how to avoid them.

There were quite a few questions about dealing with parents’ divorces, stress and overload at school, overweight, and getting along with parents. One student asked me to define what normal standards were for adolescent development, and one teen wanted to know how to get through her teen years without having to say “no” to everything.


Family GroupMy teen questions came anonymously, so it was easier for teens to speak up. Your teens probably have the same questions, and hopefully, some are even talking to you about their concerns. There’s a good chance that even when they pretend they’re sophisticated and know all the answers, they have questions. If you don’t take time, almost every day, to sit around and talk and listen, you’ll never know the questions they’d like to ask you. You may even want to have a question box where they can insert questions or thoughts, so you can think about your response. That may help get difficult topics started.


Small Family GroupThe adults who guide teenagers should stay united, or teens will surely try to divide and conquer. It’s normal adolescent development for teens to think they’d like to be treated as adults, so while it’s better not to demean your teens by talking down to them it’s also important to be a parent, not just a friend. If you take your child’s side against their other parent or grandparent, or a grandparent or parent sides with them against you, it empowers your teen with adult power and you can count on their becoming disrespectful to parents, teachers and grandparents alike. Except in cases where you need to protect them against an abusive parent, stay united for best success and security for your teen.


  1. Emphasize the positive. Encourage teenagers to stay positively involved in school activities, interests, sports and extracurricular activities. Kids who are active participants have less time or inclination for high-risk behaviors.

  2. Set clear guidelines. Be clear about limits for parties, driving privileges, alcohol, drugs, and tobacco. Remind your kids about these limits privately, or your warnings may backfire. The last three are illegal for teens, so don’t suggest they try a little at a party. It’s illegal for you to serve a teen alcohol who is not your own child.

  3. Talk to other parents and stick together. “All the kids are doing it” is a familiar refrain. If parents are allied, you’ll find it easier to be firm.

  4. Keep family togetherness going. While teenagers spend lots of time with peers, they still need families. Teens with good family relationships and family fun are less likely to get involved in high-risk activities. Work and play together. Don’t assume that teens are past that stage.

  5. Be positive about school achievement and teachers. Students who care about their school achievement are less likely to get into trouble. They’ll be more likely to care if their parents value their accomplishments.

  6. Prepare students for the college alcohol and drug scene. When visiting colleges with your teen, ask questions about the extent of alcohol and drug use on campus. Caution teens about how partying can destroy college degrees and future careers.

  7. Get help if necessary. Alcohol, tobacco, drug use, sexual promiscuity, underachievement, depression, cutting or anxiety are all reasons to get professional psychological help for your teens. Be sure you choose a psychologist or counselor who will also work with you on parenting issues around your teen’s problems.


The anti-arguing alliance provides a model for positive communication between adults and children who are in a habit of arguing and continuously pushing limits. The model is effective for parents, teachers and teens.

Ally with a positive statement.
Listen to what the child has to say.
Learn about what the child is thinking.
Inquire to determine if there are other issues missed.
Answer only after taking time to think about the request.
Name two or three reasons for your answers.
Consequence if child reinitiates arguing.
End. Absolutely don’t engage in further arguments.


1Sylvia Rimm, Growing Up Too Fast: The Rimm Report on the
Secret World of America’s Middle Schoolers, Rodale, 2005.

2The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at
Columbia University, CASA 2003 Teen Survey: High Stress, Frequent
Boredom, Too Much Spending Money: Triple Threat That Hikes Risk
of Teen Substance Abuse, August, 2003.

3Raskin, Robyn, The Parent's Guide to College Life, The Princeton
Review, 2006.

4Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, Physical activity levels
among children aged 9-13 years—United States, 2002. Morbidity
and Mortality Weekly Report.

5Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and YM Magazine, National
Survey of Teens: Teens Talk About Dating, Intimacy, and Their
Sexual Experiences (Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation,

©2008 by Sylvia B. Rimm. All rights reserved. This publication, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without written permission of the author.