Preventing Your Teen from Using Drugs: It’s All About Persuasion

teen girl's dreams and goals graphic

How can parents prevent their kids from using drugs? Guest blogger, Theodore Caputi, president and founder of the Student Leader Union, suggests making it personal.

“Prevention is all about persuasion.”

I heard this nugget of wisdom at a training seminar for prevention professionals. It represents a paradigm shift in the way substance abuse professionals approach prevention – one that has been supported by years of research, but is still not implemented by many prevention providers.

Think about it. Much of drug and alcohol programming focuses on education. I could not tell you how many boring lectures I have endured about the street names for PCP, the difference between depressants and stimulants, and the strange and clever ways people ingest drug. That’s certainly education – I have learned that marijuana can be inhaled, digested or absorbed through the skin – but it certainly has not persuaded me to change my behavior.

The truth is, we don’t need to spend much time giving kids the “facts” on drugs. Most young people already know that “weed” is a street name for marijuana or that long-term heavy drinking can lead to alcoholism. Instead, we need to persuade kids to either reduce or refuse drug use.

Of course, not all forms of persuasion are equally effective.

Persuasion in drug education usually boils down to a discussion about the health consequences of drugs. Kids are told that their lungs will turn black if they smoke tobacco, that they’ll have liver failure if they drink too much, and that they may overdose from prescription painkillers. True, that is persuasion – teaching young people the consequences of substance use is an attempt to tip the scale in favor of not using.

From my perspective, however, this is a common example of flawed marketing. Adults typically create and implement prevention programs and so they communicate in terms that adults care about: namely — health.

But kids take their good health for granted. I am a health researcher and I am writing this post while eating Oreo’s and sipping on a Red Bull. I know that Oreo’s and Red Bull will hurt me in the long run –  but I’m 20 years old and my long-term health is not keeping me up at night.

We need to communicate prevention in terms that kids understand and appreciate, and we need young people to understand that drugs and alcohol will interfere with things they personally care about.

In the words of Harvard Marketing Professor, Theodore Levitt, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want to buy a quarter-inch hole!” Prevention providers need to stop selling the drill and start selling the hole.

But, if not health, what do young people care about?

This is the tricky part. Different kids care about different things and prevention should seek to engage everyone.

Therefore, I argue that as a part of prevention, we should have teens develop their own, personal short- and long-term goals. Teens will begin thinking about what they want to do and accomplish, and discuss how drugs and alcohol can interfere with their specific grand plans.

Perhaps, best of all, this technique will help teens beyond just prevention. Teens will gain leadership and planning skills – both of which are worthwhile even without the prevention element. And of course, prevention providers and parents can finally measure what students do – whether that be starting a chess club, making the varsity basketball team or getting an A in AP English – instead of what they don’t do.

This technique worked well in my own life. My parents did not spend much time lecturing me or my brother on the health effects of drugs. Instead, my mother spoke to us in terms of our goals. “When you’re young,” she said, “all the doors of opportunity are wide open, and you can do anything you want or become anyone you want.” But she warned, “Mistakes along the way, like drug and alcohol use, close some of those doors, and you’ll miss the opportunities you once had.” Every time I was offered a drink in high school, I could hear the thud of a door slamming shut and refused.

Persuasion is key to making prevention work, so let’s make the argument for prevention more persuasive. Show young people that drug and alcohol use will hinder their goals and dreams, and we can increase the effectiveness of our prevention efforts.

Start a conversation with your teen about drugs that gets him/her thinking about their own goals and dreams. Try asking your teen these questions:

“What would make doing drugs a big deal for you?”

This gets your teen to think about the future, what her boundaries are around drug use and what would make it “a big deal.” It will give you insight into what is important to her. If use progresses and some of these boundaries are crossed, you can then bring that up at a later date.

“What are some things that keep you from using drugs?”

This is a question that makes your teen think about the reasons why she doesn’t want to use drugs. It allows her to think about what drugs would interfere with if she did use.

How have you talked to your teens about drugs? Please share in the comment section below.

Theodore Caputi is a student at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. He is interested in the intersection between youth engagement and substance abuse prevention. Theodore is the president and founder of the Student Leader Union, an organization that provides leadership education to middle and high-school students in the Philadelphia area. He has interned at the Treatment Research Institute, where he sits on the Institutional Review Board and serves as Vice Chair of the Board of Directors for the Bucks County (Pennsylvania) Drug & Alcohol Commission.

Preventing Teens From Using Drugs

Conversations are one of the most powerful tools parents can use to connect with — and protect — their kids. We’ve provided scenarios and scripts below on what to say to your child, no matter their age.

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