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Parents often feel helpless when it comes to teen drugs and alcohol use. But prevention research over the past two decades has shown that by encouraging their kids to get involved in the community – either through school, church, sports, etc. – parents can change their kids’ ability to turn down drugs and alcohol. That’s powerful, and as a kid who’s seen it all, it’s my firm belief that parents are still the dominant force when it comes to kids’ decisions, especially in those crucial middle school years.
In the early 1990’s, two research teams, (Donavon, Jessor, & Cost and Hawkins, Catalano, & Miller) published research that supports what I’ve witnessed from my own experience as a teenager: we need to focus on the positive potential of kids, not on the negative potential of using drugs. If we empower teens and tweens to become comfortable in their own skin, to feel connected with their communities and to realize that their locus of control is internal, they’ll have the power to overcome many obstacles. Many researchers have termed this new approach to prevention “Positive Youth Development” because, rather than focusing on problem behaviors, it focuses on the amazing potential of young people.
There are countless opportunities to prevent risky adolescent behaviors by encouraging positive engagement instead. For example, creative and artistic students may contribute to a school literary magazine, fostering a sense of confidence about their abilities, and also making a contribution to the school community. Encouraging kids to appreciate diversity could help them to feel more “at ease” with themselves and gain a greater understanding of their larger global communities. Independent research projects and afterschool study groups can show kids that they have the power to change what and how well they learn. All of these are proven to work, and to kids like me, they sound more appealing than DARE.
While a variety of structured activities can give youth an advantage when it comes to drugs and alcohol prevention, social scientists are still struggling to find the best methods for prevention. Is there an activity that can build up most – or even all – of the preventative factors to help teens turn down drugs and alcohol?
Early in my own adolescence I had a question: what separates the kids who decided to drink and do drugs from those who didn’t? Like many of my peers, I was confused. At first it seemed only the “bad” kids drank or did drugs. But as the years went by, more and more kids picked it up. By tenth grade, it seemed like most of my friends had at least experimented with drugs and alcohol, and there was no linking factor among them. Some were smart. Some struggled in school. Some were popular. Some were unpopular. Some had active parents. Some had absent parents. Some were athletes. Some were couch potatoes. What characteristic could possibly connect such a motley group of teens?
I thought it through consciously, and I decided to try a different approach. What did the teenagers who weren’t doing drugs and alcohol have in common? No social group was immune to drug and alcohol use; so what was different about the individuals who decided against it?
The answer at that point was clear. Almost all of the kids I knew who had decided against drugs and alcohol were leaders in their schools, houses of worship, and communities. They had taken on leadership positions and put forth a conscious effort to better their leadership skills. They weren’t all “natural leaders” – but the majority of them had given leadership a shot and became officers of clubs or captains of teams.
After investigating the available literature, I can see why leadership was the commonality among students who decided against drugs and alcohol, and my theory coincides with the concept of Positive Youth Development. Leadership satisfies several of the protective factors for drug and alcohol use among adolescents. Student leaders feel connected with their schools and communities. They feel responsible to both their own actions and their followers. They have meaningful relationships with adults and teachers, and through their experiences, they develop a strong sense of self-worth. Leadership has it all.
The decision to experiment or get involved with drugs and alcohol is a personal one, so it’s time we developed the people who make that decision. My suggestion to both parents and the prevention community is to consider leadership and leadership education as a method of problem behavior prevention. Research proves we can teach leadership skills to students, and it may be the magic key we’ve been looking for when it comes to Positive Youth Development.
Theodore Caputi is a student at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. While in high school, he founded and directed a non-profit organization called the Student Leader Union, which fosters student leadership and community engagement. He is currently a policy intern at the Treatment Research Institute, where he also serves as a member of the Institutional Review Board.