Could it be that more teen-agers don’t say no to drugs because they’re too polite to refuse? The authors of a new book on teen-agers and drug use say the “Just say no” approach to resisting drugs doesn’t work with adolescents because it lacks authenticity. Instead, they say, communications and negotiations skills may be the best way to teach young people the art of “confident refusal.”
“For most adolescents, their relationship with friends of both sexes and the need for group acceptance outweighs adult admonitions about the dangers of taking drugs,” said Michelle A. Miller-Day, assistant professor of speech communications at Penn State University and one of five co-authors of the book “Adolescent Relationships and Drug Use.”
The book is based on several separate surveys involving hundreds of high school and college students and was jointly written by Miller-Day, Michael L. Hecht, professor of speech communication and department head at Penn State, Jess K. Alberts and Melanie R. Trost, both associate professors of communication at Arizona State University, and Robert L. Krizek, assistant professor of communication at St. Louis University.
Young people are rarely introduced to drugs by strangers, Miller-Day noted. Fewer than 5 percent of teen-agers in suburban and rural areas reported receiving drug offers from strangers, and while those offers were more common among urban youth, they still totaled less than 10 percent. Across all age groups, adolescents are offered drugs by their friends more than by any other relational partner, Miller-Day said. “Usually a school friend makes the initial offer and the teen accepts because not to accept would risk the relationship and perhaps brand him or her as an outsider.”
The number of friends present when the offer is made is critical, she said, and the larger the group, the more intense the pressure.
“Teens who accept an offer of alcohol or other drugs are not in a one-on-one situation but in a group of five or more peers,” she said. “Many teens accept the offer because of a perceived obligation.” Teen-agers who participated in the surveys said that they accepted “to be polite and not refuse their invitation” or “just to please them,” and acknowledged that they talk themselves into accepting the offer “not to make a big deal of it.”
“Teens don’t want to appear rude. These invitations are not perceived as peer pressure most teens have heard about, but as a polite offer of inclusion that suggests an implicit pressure to accept,” Miller-Day said.
What can help is teaching teen-agers strategies to get them through these social situations, and the authors subscribe to what they term the R.E.A.L. strategy, an acronym for refuse, explain, avoid and leave. Refusal means stating a simple “no” and expecting one’s friends to accept that answer. Explaining is an elaboration of the refusal, such as “my stomach can’t stand that stuff.” Avoiding situations where there may be drugs, or using deception, such as holding a glass of beer but not drinking it, can also be effective tactics. And leaving the situation is the final resort.
“Teens need to be prepared,” Miller-Day said. “They need to realize that it may be difficult to say no to someone you consider a friend or to someone you’re dating.”
The study made it clear, Miller-Day said, that teen-agers were most vulnerable to drug use when they were hanging out or killing time. “In these situations adolescents, when approached to do drugs, can steer the conversation in another direction by suggesting to peers that they do something else together more interesting or exciting. This deflects the offer without offending the person making the offer.”
Parents can also help by talking with and listening to their children. “Too often parents choose to lecture their child about the ‘evils’ of drugs and don’t provide the social support the child needs to make confident refusals,” Miller-Day said.
Parents need to be sensitive to their children’s need for approval and acceptance among their peers. “Brainstorm with your child some possible option for how he or she could respond to a drug offer by a close friend, a boyfriend or girlfriend,” Miller-Day suggested. Parents and their teen-age children should discuss strategies for refusing a drug offer in both a one-on-one situation or in a group of friends.
The authors are working on a four-year, school-based drug resistance research project titled “Keepin’ it R.E.A.L.” The 10-week, 10-lesson program has been presented to 5,500 seventh-grade students in Phoenix. The research program, now in its second year, involves students in learning and practicing R.E.A.L. resistance strategies.