Community Fund youth asset survey: Data shows improvement in Darien's risk awareness

A survey of Darien youth shows an increase in family rules regarding substances and a positive turn in how active family discussions occur about risky behaviors.

Last week, at at a crowded meeting, Janet King, executive director of the Community Fund of Darien started the meeting by providing a brief summary of what the fund does and what the survey is.

Read the results in the presentation here. 

“We’re here to enhance the community by caring for each other. We support our neighboring communities as well as the town of Darien. We are about intelligent and informed philanthropy,” King said.

The Thriving Youth Task Force started surveying students in grades seven through 12 to get baseline data in 2008. It uses the Search Institute, that set up 40 developmental assets. This is the fourth round of the survey that is taken every three years. The Community Fund became eligible for a five-year grant from the state which was received in 2015. That allowed the fund to expand the program to hire Emily Larkin to run the task force full time. A five-year strategic plan was created to address underage drinking because that is the most prevalent substance abuse among Darien teens.

External asset categories include support, empowerment, boundaries and expectations; and constructive use of time. Internal asset categories include  commitment to learning, positive values, social competencies and positive identity.

The survey showed 68% of parents of juniors and seniors have clear rules about drinking vs. 50% in 2016. It also showed 80% of Darien parents have regular discussions about drinking and other risky behaviors with their children.

King continued, “Seventh through 12 graders take the survey every three years.

The parents receive an emailed survey every two years. So we are greatly thankful for the Darien public school system and the board of Education who allow us to do the surveys in the schools.”

Susannah Lewis, part of the Youth Task Force and director of community relations and clinical outreach at Silver Hill Hospital, gave information taken from the surveys.

She said the short-term goals include increasing the number of parents who

understand the difference between the adult and teen brain, know the consequences of breaking social host laws, and an increase of parent dialogue with teens about underage drinking and substance use.

Lewis said longer term goals include a reduction in the number of 12- to 17-year-olds who have used substances in the last 30 days, and an increase in teens perceiving parental disapproval about risky behaviors.

Further long-term goals include increasing teens’ perception of the risk of these behaviors to themselves and a reduction in use of substances in the last 30 days by 11th and 12th graders, who Lewis said had the most pronounced such usage.

All students were surveyed. Parents were given the option to opt out, but none of the parents did that in Darien, so they have all of the students’ data for everyone who was in school the day the survey was implemented.

Lewis said the asset survey data is important because the more assets Darien students have, the less likely they are going to partake in risky behaviors.

“About 50% of our students are vulnerable or challenged and about 50% of them are doing okay or thriving. That data from the search institute is pretty on par to other demographics compared to Darien,” Lewis said.

Lewis said from 2014 to 2018, cigarette use has already decreased substantially but and in 2018 that dropped much more.  However, she said nearly 40% of 12th graders reported vaping within the last 30 days.

“That more than makes up the decreased proportion of cigarette smoking. For alcohol, there was a drop but the figure is still quite high at 61% for twelfth grade 30-day usage,” she said.  

Marijuana usage data was not as clear because the survey didn’t specifically ask what students were using while vaping, and marijuana can be vaped.

Students and adults also reported using prescription amphetamines non-medicinally to enhance their academic performance.

She said although those numbers are low, “there’s a story within that data.”

Fewer students perceived risks related to cigarette smoking than 2014, but still nearly 70% perceive smoking as risky. Still, only about 20% view vaping or e-cigarettes as risky.  

Risk perception related to drinking alcohol increased from 35% to 50% of students, but risk perception related to binge drinking dropped about 10% from 2014 to 38% of students.

Students continue to believe parents disapprove of smoking cigarettes, using prescription pills and moderate day drinking, but still don’t see a lot parent disapproval for binge drinking.

The top five reasons students reportedly drink were friends/peer pressure, to have fun, relieving stress, the availability of alcohol and curiosity.

The top five reasons students reported not drinking were being in a group that doesn’t drink, parental rules, breathalyzers, ID checking and getting a driver’s licence suspended.

Lewis also said parents generally underestimate how much teens drink, according to survey data.

“In grade nine, 3% of parents think their child is drinking, though 15% of the students said they drink. In grade 11 and 12, parents’ estimates were closer but still off. Vaping is the hardest to detect. Seven percent of parents of 10th graders thought their child vapes, when in reality 20% of them vape,” Lewis said.

Community Fund volunteer Alison Johnson spoke more on the survey’s finds.

She said parents of juniors and seniors find slightly moderate drinking to pose a great threat, but not many find binge drinking one or two times a month harmful.

Survey data show that parents think their children aren’t drinking because of family expectations, family rules, and parental behavior. The reality of why their children aren’t drinking include: legal consequences, school programs, and community prevention initiatives.

Darien High School senior and co-president of the Youth Asset team, Annie Arrix, followed saying, “The fact that you’re here says how much you care as parents.”

Panelist John Hamilton, chief clinical officer for Mountain Side and chairman of the advisory board for the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction services, began by speaking about addiction and the reason why teens try drugs.

“Why do people do drugs? To feel good or to feel better,” he said.

“For those who do it to feel better, they may have started to feel good but has now caused a disconnection to their body, feelings, family. A lot of other kids aren’t comfortable in their own skin. These are the individuals who will try drugs to make them feel better,” Hamilton said.

He then listed drugs that can increase the likelihood of becoming addicted to heroin. Alcohol makes it twice as likely, three times for marijuana, cocaine increases the risk of being addicted to heroin by 15 times, and opioid painkillers are 40 times likely having a chance to being addicted to heroin. These chances increase by 17% for those who are 18 and increase by 25% to 50% for those who are 15 years old or younger.

Dr. Tara S Levinson, a licenses psychologist and published author, then spoke about the importance of having students participate in a variety of activities, not just sports, but music and theater in order avoid the idea that failure in one field equates to overall failure.

“We encourage our youth to be included in a variety of activities and be able to find joy in different areas of life,” Levinson said.

“We need to help our youth when a child is doing something bad and know they are listened to because in these situations where they think the end of the world is coming some think there is no better alternative,” she said.

Harrison and Levinson then summarized that what is needed out of parents is positive reinforcement, realistic expectations, and judgment-free outlets. And what is needed out of community members include encouragement, kindness inclusiveness, and education on mental health. Also, they emphasized teachers should understand pressure, push students but knowing boundaries, and care about mental health. In conclusion, teens need the freedom to control, have confidence, competence, and connections.

The full survey results can be viewed at