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The researchers found that students in middle school who felt more emotional support from teachers had a lower risk of early alcohol and illicit drug use. The students defined teacher support as feeling close to a teacher or being able to discuss problems with a teacher.
"Our results were surprising," Carolyn McCarty, of Seattle Children's Research Institute, said in an institute news release. "We have known that middle school teachers are important in the lives of young people, but this is the first data-driven study which shows that teacher support is associated with lower levels of early alcohol use."
Parental ties also mattered, according to the study. The researchers explained that youth who are close to or who have separation anxiety from their parents may be less susceptible to negative peer influences, including experimentation with risky behavior such as alcohol use.
"Teens in general seek new sensations or experiences and they take more risks when they are with peers," said McCarty, who is also a research associate professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. "Youth with separation-anxiety symptoms may be protected by virtue of their intense connection to their parents, making them less likely to be in settings where substance-use initiation is possible."
The study also found that middle school students who began using alcohol and illicit drugs before sixth grade had significantly higher levels of depressive symptoms, which suggests that depression may be a consequence of very early use of alcohol or drugs. It also may indicate that depression is a risk factor for alcohol and drug use before middle school, the researchers said.
The findings from the study of 521 youth in Seattle public schools appears online in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors.
"Based on the study and our findings, substance-use prevention needs to be addressed on a multidimensional level," McCarty said. "We need to be aware of and monitor early adolescent stress levels, and parents, teachers and adults need to tune into kids' mental health. We know that youth who initiate substance abuse before age 14 are at a high risk of long-term substance abuse problems and myriad health complications."
Although the study found an association between close relationships with teachers and parents and less risk of drug or alcohol use in middle school students, it did not prove that those relationships are the reason why those children were less likely to use drugs or alcohol.
-- Robert Preidt
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