How to keep teenagers from abusing drugs and alcohol

Kully asks: What can be done to help high school learners not to engage in alcohol and drug abuse?

Hi Kully –


This is of course a gigantic issue, one that has dominated minds far greater than mine for decades.


The problem is a simple one – teenagers like to do things that are daring, things that are adult, and things that make them feel different; and alcohol and drugs meet all three of those desires.


The one thing I can promise you doesn’t work is telling them not to do them.  It’s great to educate children about the dangers of different substances, and that can have fantastic long-term results.  In the United States, concerted campaigns to teach kids about the dangers of smoking have helped cut the percentage of smokers there by half in the last fifty years.  But telling teenagers that alcohol and drug abuse are unhealthy does almost nothing.


You see, the teenage mind is programmed to question authority, to distrust anyone who tells them what to believe, say, or do – especially anyone they ever trusted when they were younger (such as their parents or teachers).  But there are things that work.  Among them are:


1)    Peers.  When a teen’s friend tells them drugs are stupid, that has immensely more effect than anything their parents can say.  If a friend suffers from using one, that has even more effect.  If you want to teach teens about the danger of drinking and drugs, get a teen who’s seen the dark side of them to tell them about it.

2)    Idols.  While adolescents lose interest in what their parents and teachers might tell them, they pay a lot more attention to athletes, musicians, movie stars, and so on.  The deaths of a bunch of great rock stars in the 1960s certainly contributed to the drop in popularity of LSD, heroin, and others then.  Hopefully, the recent losses of Michael Jackson, Heath Ledger, Whitney Houston, and others will similarly warn kids away from abuses of legal and illegal drugs now.

3)    Seeing Is Believing.  Much of our society works so hard to protect our kids from contact with “scary people.”  That’s silly!  Teens should see what years of drunkenness really looks like – boys should see men who can’t control their bladders, girls should see former beauty queens with greenish skin – and the horrific effects of drug abuse.

4)    Don’t demand too much.  If your son tries a cigarette, or your daughter gets drunk at a party, their life isn’t ruined.  Accept that these might be a rite of passage for them, and work to make sure things don’t get worse.  Much more important to make sure that, if they do drink, they don’t drive, and that they don’t get themselves into a situation where they’ll be arrested or jailed!

5)    And biggest of all, encourage teens to DREAM!  The teenager who devotes herself to becoming an Olympic athlete isn’t likely to smoke anything; the adolescent cramming to ace medical school entrance exams isn’t going to get drunk every night.


Again, Kully, I wish I could give you a simple answer that would result in all teenagers being safe and healthy.  But no one’s ever found that.  Better by far to aim for harm-reduction, and help them grow through this phase to be responsible and caring adults.


Good Luck,





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