Article-15 Abuse Prevention for teenagers

Substance Abuse prevention for teenagers: Scare tactics don't work!


The end of another year approaches us at merciless speed and with that comes the typical end of year challenge of occupying learners, while teachers are desperately trying to finish off marking exams and finalizing administrative duties. These last few weeks when learners are still reeling and suffering from study fatigue (hopefully, that is) and teachers just want to be done; presents a golden opportunity to empower our learners about their susceptibility to substance use, particularly over the holidays where freedom becomes more of a boring burden than a positive pleasure. So providing some presentations on this subject might be beneficial to learners and teachers alike. However…

Education professionals are often under the misguided belief that scare tactics are an effective deterrent to be used on teenagers, to prevent them from taking psychoactive substances. Such tactics may include having ex-addicts or recovered addicts speak to learners about their personal journeys of addiction hell to recovery. Another tactic used is showing pictures of what a person looks like before the start of their addiction compared to pictures of what they look like after several years of active addiction. In this latter instance, there might be some method to the madness, in that you are possibly appealing to a value that an adolescent holds dear, i.e. image or appearance. However, to appeal to a young adult’s sense of considering how substance abuse can impact them over a period of time, is to not understand that a teenager attaches limited value to long term outcomes, since they are far too invested in what’s happening now! The only way this value can be approached is from the point of view that a habit established now is a groove being hewn, which it will become increasingly difficult to clamber out of as time goes by. This is an important appeal to make to a teenager, which can speak to their critical thinking ability, since they also need to understand that they are in a critical phase of mental development, where not only incredible growth is taking place, but where simultaneously a tremendous amount of pruning is already having to occur by extension. Teenagers need to know this about themselves and it is one of the things we cover in our talks to adolescents on substance abuse. 

To get  back to scare tactics; studies conducted in America, to assess the impact of “scared straight” programmes in high schools have been found in fact to have had the opposite desired effect, i.e. they actually increased the incidence of crime among adolescents. Such a programme was one where at risk adolescents between the ages of twelve and eighteen, were taken into prisons and met inmates who had received life sentences. This was an example of a “shock experience” approach or tactic.  In research done subsequently, it was found that participants in this programme “were more likely to commit crimes than were kids in the control groups in every single study. The increase in criminal activity among the scared-straight kids ranged from 1 percent to 30 percent, with an average of 13 percent”. (Moran, J.P. (2000) Teaching Sex: The shaping of adolescence in the 20th century. Cambridge. MA: Harvard University Press.

A similar programme was the D.A.R.E. programme (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), also widely conducted in America, which was found to be mostly ineffective. Police visited schools for an hour a week and taught children about the dangers of drugs and how to resist peer pressure. (Rosenbaum & Hanson,1998).  While such approaches seem to make perfect sense, they actually do more harm than good.

Why don’t these approaches work? Well, first of all, would they work on you? Ask yourself to what extent, you as an adult would have heeded or acted positively to threats to your health or safety? Smoking cigarettes is a classic example, where despite the incontrovertible evidence of its harmful effects, people still start and continue to smoke late into life, sometimes until death. Despite all the best intentions in the world, people have a built- in reflex, that immediately sets up a resistance to threats and which automatically invites the: “yes, but, or not me…” response. With adolescents this tactic is particularly dangerous, since they are also naturally geared to take bigger risks than adults and they are more susceptible to anything that might create a buzz or a high. Why? Because their brains are not fully developed and therefore the part of the brain that regulates pleasure is allowed to run riotously unfettered and unencumbered by the boring and mature fortitudes of the pre-frontal cortex.  

Teenagers do not yet have the gift of experience and their hormones tell them they are immortal. Therefore long term vision is not one of their greatest strengths. They are impulsive and their values are related to image, attractiveness to the opposite gender (mostly) and being “in” with their peers. They struggle with social anxiety (including shame and embarrassment) and depression, as they try to find meaning and purpose in what really seems to be a meaningless and purposeless world. These are the issues adolescents need assistance with and for which substances are often used in an ameliorative fashion.

Which brings us back to strengths. We need to harness the strengths that teenagers have in their favour, in order to assist them to make the right decisions for themselves now and into tomorrow.   

Empowering teenagers to understand the phase of life they are experiencing, more clearly, empowers them to cope with it in a more compassionate and calm way and helping a teenager realize that he/she lives in an environment that is increasingly risky as far as access and availability of substances is concerned, is empowering in the sense that it gives them the chance to make decisions around what their focus should be.

Young adults need to be assisted to become effective autonomous adults, who  feel good about themselves and good about what they do.  If you would like our trainer to come and talk with your adolescents please contact us on