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When Laura Langanki found extra towels in the laundry smelling lemony fresh, she never dreamed that meant her 13-year-old son was on drugs. "We were going through three to four bottles of air freshener a week," says the 42-year-old nurse from Plymouth, Minn. "Like a fool, I thought my kid was becoming more interested in personal hygiene."

Instead, Jake was "huffing"–spraying the contents into towels and inhaling the fumes for a short-lived buzz. By the time she caught on two years later, he was smoking pot, using acid and crystal methamphetamine, drinking alcohol, and snorting cocaine.
Laura had warned Jake not to try illegal drugs when he was younger and felt sure he got the message. But according to a new U.S. News poll, even parents who believe they talk often with their kids about drugs can be mistaken. Of 700 parents and 700 teens surveyed, 1 in 3 parents claimed to talk about drugs "a lot" with his or her teen, while only 14 percent of teenagers felt they had frequent conversations on the subject with Mom or Dad.

That failure to communicate can have dire consequences. In a 1999 survey of nearly 10,000 parents and teens by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, teens who received antidrug messages at home were 42 percent less likely to use drugs. "This may sound like soft advice," says Steve Dnistrian, executive vice president of the group. "But hard numbers quantify that parental communication is the single most important thing we can do to prevent children from using drugs." Indeed, parents received the highest vote of confidence from 63 percent of the teens polled by U.S. News, outranking siblings, teachers, and friends.

Most teens act as if they would rather clean their room than talk to their parents about touchy subjects like drugs or sex. Don't be deterred, says Rhonda Sykes, associate clinical director for Hazelden Chicago, a drug treatment center for adolescents. "Teens don't say, 'Thanks for the great advice.' But they do hear what their parents are saying."

No butts. Brandi Domiano, a 16-year-old from Old Forge, Pa., who has never tried cigarettes or alcohol, credits her mother for the choices she makes now. "When I was in sixth grade, my mother would talk to me about how bad drinking and smoking are for you," Domiano says. Her mother also gave her books to read about the harmful effects of drugs.

Experts agree conversations about drugs should begin early and continue throughout adolescence. "Start talking about it when the child is around age 8," says Richard Gallagher, director of the Parenting Institute at New York University Child Study Center. Explain the difference between legal drugs prescribed by doctors and illegal drugs used for fun. Let your children know that other kids may offer these substances to them and that you want them to stay away from drugs because of the harmful effects on health and well-being, Gallagher says.

Many parents will have to do homework on the dangers of drugs. "The only thing worse than no information is bad information," says Paul Ciborowski, professor of counseling at Long Island University's C. W. Post campus. Ask youth counselors and teachers which drugs are common at your child's school so you can emphasize the right ones. The Internet can provide research on the ill effects of certain drugs.

Resist the temptation to lecture. Ask lots of questions, and listen to your child's opinions and feelings. And make sure your kids get the message that you're talking about the topic because you're concerned and you want them to be safe.

Kids may fire back with the dreaded question: "Did you do drugs when you were young?" "No need to let it all hang out," Ciborowski says. Be honest, but don't spell out everything. Stress lessons you learned, and talk about people you knew who had a hard time because they used drugs. "Real stories of people who were separated from their families or had to do jail time are what keep me off drugs," says Thomas Brennan, 16, of New York City.

If there is alcoholism in the family, you need to explain to your children that they are at higher risk, says Sandra Bernabei, a substance abuse specialist at Barnard College. That's what Alex Benson's parents did. "I definitely think about it and it scares me," says the 15-year-old from Springfield, Vt. "My uncle is an alcoholic and I know that one day it could be me."

Bernabei also warns parents not to assume that all kids use drugs. According to the latest findings from the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, 55 percent of high school seniors say they have tried illicit drugs. In the past year, close to 40 percent smoked marijuana, almost 6 percent used inhalants, 8 percent took LSD, 6 percent used cocaine, 1 percent took heroin, and close to 6 percent say they used MDMA, also known as Ecstasy. "The truth is, a minority of kids use drugs or binge drink regularly," Bernabei says.

Conveying the idea that all kids use drugs may make your child feel pressure to join in. And parents aren't the only ones guilty of exaggerating; 25 percent of the teenagers in our poll said most teens use drugs on a regular basis. But only 8 percent said close friends are frequent users.

At the same time, don't assume that your child is not being exposed. According to a new study from researchers at Columbia University, teens in small towns and rural areas are far more likely to use drugs than urban kids. "It's not about boredom, it's about monitoring," says NYU's Gallagher, who explains that rural and small-town kids can find lots of secluded hangouts.

It's also about consequences. When kids say, "My parents will kill me if I use drugs," they really don't know what will happen. Experts advise parents to make it clear that even one infraction will bring a punishment–something with teeth, but still reasonable, like a temporary grounding. If parents learn that a child is using drugs habitually, they need to seek treatment.

Ultimately, your child will decide whether to try drugs, and even the best parents cannot always prevent it. But don't give up. Once Laura Langanki became aware of Jake's drug use she battled back, spending her savings to get him into a residential rehabilitation program. At 18, he just celebrated his 18th month of sobriety. When asked to complete an essay assignment on a significant person in his life, he chose to write about his mom.
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