July 17, 2013 —

Culture can be defined as a set of values and attitudes that shape behaviors for a group of individuals. Sports teams, companies and even individual schools have very unique cultures. In the end, it is often the cultures of these groups and organizations that separate the truly successful ones from the others.

Family culture is no different. We live in a time when more people are dying from drug poisonings and overdoses than motor vehicle accidents. The top three reasons for teen death: accidents, homicides, and suicides are all inextricably intertwined with substance abuse. Meanwhile, drug policies and societal attitudes toward drug use are ever changing, and new drugs are hitting the streets seemingly every month. To make matters worse, our parenting philosophies have become so clichéd and watered down that we sometimes feel helpless in our efforts to influence our children for the better. 

It is time for parents to reclaim a culture of leadership in their homes. A strong and positive family culture is the best way for parents to protect and guide those who matter most to us. In my opinion, our society has gone too far off track in extolling the intellectual precociousness of our children while mistaking rote intelligence for wisdom and maturity, two traits young persons will NEVER exhibit consistently. As a result, some parents have become fearful of concepts like leadership, preferring to befriend their children or to "partner" with them -neither of which is a negative when leadership is established first.

Many parents try their best by reading up on best strategies for raising children and teens. The unfortunate byproduct of this when combined with tagline only media platforms is a reductionist kind of parenting that has lost its soul. We say the right things and we use the right tactics but we've lost sight of the true essence of effective parenting for the X's and O's of our daily routines. 

Re-establishing a culture of leadership in a home requires a lengthy conversation, but below are two of the major broad elements as I see it:

  1. Emotional Objectivity - Before a parent can be a leader, they must learn how to be emotionally objective. Drug abuse is a heated topic and tensions in the home can arise naturally. Unfortunately, if we do not learn how to maintain emotional objectivity, we end up getting too angry or we feel guilty. These disproportionate feelings undermine our leverage as parents. For example, parents may think, "I was way too hard on Jeanette yesterday." We then spend most of our time compensating for one overboard emotion after another, and lose direction for our children. Proper boundaries, codependency and related issues fall under the category of emotional objectivity.
  2. Leadership - A parent who is a leader is very clear about expectations for behaviors. They know which goals and behaviors are of the highest priority and appropriate their resources accordingly. Parents who are leaders speak with one voice. They are mindful not only about what they say, but also about all forms of nonverbal communication (facial expression, body posture, etc). Leaders model the desired behaviors themselves and know how to incentivize/ reinforce the behaviors they expect in return. Leaders are not afraid to assert their own kind of culture in the home, one that suits their family’s strengths and weaknesses. Parents who act as leaders do not have to conform their own family culture to those of their neighbors, nor are they swayed by their child's request to sync family expectations with those of their friend’s parents who are more permissive.

Finally, building the right family culture is an investment, no different than a college fund. Maintaining the relationships and communication channels with your children require diligence and propriety. The best "anti-drug" talk in the world will do little if there is no foundational work for it to fit in.

Joseph Lee, M.D., is the medical director for Hazelden’s youth services. A public speaker and commentator in the national media, Dr. Lee has been featured on The Dr. Oz Show, NPR, and CNN, and in the Wall Street Journal. In addition to his board certification in addiction medicine, Dr. Lee completed his adult psychiatric training at Duke University and his child psychiatry fellowship at Johns Hopkins Hospital.