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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21 Responses

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    confused and sad

    January 11, 2019 at 4:45 PM

    Our son is currently 17. He’s a tremendous athlete and outdoorsman. He received 3rd for “Best of” for flyfishing guide, within his first summer of being a flyfishing guide. He’s an Eagle Scout. He’s goal-driven and has a plan for his future – his own decision. As parents we always have supported our kids’ healthy interests and goals. This son wants to be a professional fishing and hunting guide – straight out of high school. He also likes to hang out with kids who smoke weed. I discovered this son had been vaping a JUUL pod/day for a year. He also has tested positive for THC once and has been caught drunk. Most recently I found his stash of whisky. I’ve talked to all our kids (3 sons) regarding the closed doors that happen with drug and alcohol use. He has goals. He is loved. Both parents are role models who do not drink but occasionally and not to the point of being drunk. I’m beat up and heart broken 🙁 And feel powerless.

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      Josie Feliz

      January 14, 2019 at 10:55 AM

      Thanks for your message Confused and Sad. We have forwarded your message to one of our helpline specialists who can help better answer your question, and she will be reaching out to you shortly.

      Our Helpline is a good place to start if you’d like to talk to someone about what you’re going through. Feel free to connect with us in whichever manner you choose in the future:
      Thank you. -The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids

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    Anthony Seals

    July 12, 2018 at 1:27 PM

    How widespread is Marijuana In California for teenagers?

    How serious is Marijuana in Sacramento? Is it affecting the teenagers more?

    Why is this a problem that should be handled by our local government ?

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      Candice Besson

      July 12, 2018 at 2:10 PM

      Hi Anthony,

      For localized information about marijuana use among teens in California, we recommend you contact SAM at


      Partnership for Drug-Free Kids

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    February 21, 2018 at 10:35 PM

    Since I am writing a speech for college on this very subject, I asked my teen this morning, “What is your main reason for not doing drugs?” He told me that he knew it would prevent him from being the “lit athlete that he is”. Score 1 for teen and for mom because I totally told him all about how his uncles chose drugs over sports and he can see for himself how that turned out. I think your article and advise is spot on. Use what they care about to teach them.

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    January 25, 2018 at 6:09 PM

    None of these comments, or the article itself is helpful to me at all. So you give them info, tell them its their choice, and then what? They do it anyway. Just like the writer of this article when they state they arent worried about their longterm health and it eating chips and drinking a redbull. Same applies to drugs/alcohol. They dont care or think about future doors closing, they think about that night and all the fun they are missing out on. Not one person has listed any specific consequences either. Everyone says have them but no one says what they are. And grounding? Good luck, what do you do when they go out anyway? 6’2, i’m going out. Ok….. Get physical? Illegal. So what then….? I’m looking for actual help, not tell them a door is closing on your future that you obviously dont care about when your 16, like many care about the future when 16yrs old….

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      January 26, 2018 at 5:22 PM

      Hi Matt,
      I can understand your frustration as there is no easy answer, especially with teens who think the world is their playground and who fail to anticipate consequences. There are a combination of parenting practices that work though: setting expectations, being clear about limits and consequences (to your point, you may need to be more creative here with a 6’2″ I’m going out anyway — which is to say ok, he can choose to leave, but what is the consequence if he does so?), using positive reinforcement to help shape and encourage the behaviors you want to see more of, using communication tools so that you can actually have a conversation instead of having it implode, and engaging in your own self-care so that you act with intention instead of reacting. This also allows you to model healthy behaviors for your kid.

      There is a fair amount of information about these parenting practices on the website if you search under CRAFT. Also, you can call our helpline 1-855-DRUGFREE and the parent specialists will help you develop a personalized plan. If warranted and you’re interested, you can also be connected with one of our trained parent coaches who have already been through this and can offer some insights and suggestions.

      All of our services are free so please reach out. And thanks for posting. It’s helpful to know what is useful and what isn’t.

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    January 19, 2018 at 11:17 PM

    Hello, all,

    I would like to know the consensus as to what age a child should be when parents first discuss drugs and their potential consequences. I want to talk about drugs and alcohol to my children before their friends or peers have the chance to. Thank you.

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      January 26, 2018 at 5:25 PM

      Hi Kelly,
      Our research indicates that children in elementary school (5th and 6th grades) transitioning to middle school can benefit from learning about drugs and alcohol. Although children younger than 11 years old can and do engage in substance use, it’s unusual.
      Please call or chat with us if you have any other questions.

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      January 22, 2019 at 8:12 PM

      Even very young children can understand things are bad for them and can kill them (running out street, falling from high places). Some things are medicine and you take it only if absolutely necessary and somethings hurt you even if you have it just once. I love you. I don’t want you to ever get hurt. Three year olds can understand that. I think slowly building on it later will make more sense then just to say “surprise! This exists and will ruin your life.” It works only if you model it though.

      Almost always the earlier the better if it is kept simple.

      As for people who have already started–slow and steady! You can do it! Perfection hardly ever happens right away! Just improving is better than getting worse or staying the same! The whole family needs support!!

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