How “Just Say No” Fails Teenagers

One of life’s great reality checks is parenting or caring for young people. The process of trying to protect them and prevent them from making bad choices reminds all who try that we have very limited power. We may think we can control the world and people around us, but the reality is we have very little control over other people or the choices they make. It is a lesson that many find hard to accept.

Ultimately the only person’s behaviour we have the power to control is our own. No amount of hovering, lecturing, threatening, punishing, or bribing, guarantees a teenager will act in a certain way when given the opportunity.

This means that when a teenager makes choices the only person who has real control is the teenager. Parents and adults are ultimately relegated to the status of observers.

However adults don’t have to be passive observers.  They can, and should, adopt important roles such as educators, advisors, role models, mentors, guides, instructors, cheerleaders, equippers, and encouragers in the lives of teenagers. Most parents and educators embrace at least some of these roles. However the strategies we employ aren’t always the most effective.

In the last few weeks I have come across two examples of how a common strategy we use to help teenagers make wise choices fails.

When it comes to sex education and drug prevention a common message we give to teenagers is “JUST SAY NO.” The essence of this strategy is if we say it convincingly enough, get kids to memorise it, and some how make it a cool thing to do, then we have equipped them to make wise choices.

This strategy is a fail in both instances because it focuses on the object of the choice not the one choosing.

Allow me to explain.

Sex Education Fail

I came across this intriguing example on UK youth expert Sarah Newton’s blog (check it out if you are interested in teenagers, she’s got some great stuff!)

Sarah recounts the chapter from a book called “Predictably Irrational” in which the author conducts an experiment on teenagers and their sexual choices.

In the first phase of the experiment teenagers are asked what they would and wouldn’t do sexually if given the opportunity.

Having recorded the unaroused answers the same teenagers were then asked to get in a state of arousal (by themselves) and asked the same series of questions again.  The results of this test are very telling.

Things that the students said they would never do while unaroused, they were open to doing while under arousal. Things they were unsure about doing while unaroused, they would certainly do under arousal.

The choices teenagers make have more to do with the situation or mood they are in than what they may or may not have been told about wise sexual behaviour.

The mantra “Just Say No” doesn’t equip teenagers to deal with their emotions.  A teenager may agree wholeheartedly to abstinence while in a classroom or parent’s lounge room. However in the back of a car, hormones pumping, besotted by love or lust, rationale ascent to a mantra will have little effect.

I agree with Sarah when she suggests sex education needs to be about emotion. As parents and educators we serve our young people better by exploring how to equip them to deal with strong emotions. Help them to think through what that might be like and develop strategies for dealing with them.  These are strategies focused on the one choosing not the object of the choice.

Drug Education Fail

The second article I came across was when doing some research on drug prevention for teenagers. On his Psychology Today blog, adolescent counsellor Ugo Uche had a helpful critique on the “Just Say no” strategy in relation to equipping teens to choose wisely about drug use.

The article refers to an ad run on US TV about a teenager offered a joint at a party. The ad basically tries to convey the internal debate of a teenage mind in a humorous way. Sure enough the kid says no – because that is his choice, and he won’t succumb to peer pressure.

Ugo makes the excellent point that these ads portray a teenager who is a well adjusted clear thinking young person with reasonable levels of self esteem and social confidence.  These young people are the ones least susceptible to peer pressure, and less likely to turn to drugs. It is the teens feeling disconnected, hurt, inadequate, or hopeless who are more likely to consider using drugs and definitely the ones most susceptible to peer pressure.

Rather than always focusing on programs that educate about drugs, we would do well to get programs that focus on the reasons why teenagers do drugs.  Equipping teenagers to deal with disappointment, failure, and rejection would actually reduce teenager’s desire for an escape in drugs. Teaching resilience may be more strategic than teaching about drugs.

Again the message is focus on the one who is choosing not on the object of the choice. Enabling teenagers the opportunity to explore and process their feelings has nothing to do with drugs but will empower teenagers to make wiser choices about drugs.

Just Say No to Just Say No

There is nothing wrong with advising teenagers on the implications of engaging in sexual activity or using drugs. However telling young people to “just say no” without helping them deal with their motivations and feelings will leave young people ill equipped.

As adults we are powerless enough without embracing impotent strategies.  Lets say no to “Just Say No.”  What are your thoughts?

Image by B G

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  • sammi

    I remember during a sex ed lesson a teacher was talking about drinking and parties, basically telling us if we’re at a party and someone offers a drink say no and go home. A girl in the back was saying to her friends: ‘but i don’t want to say no’ and most of the other mutterings around the classroom were along the same lines. They keep trying to teach us to just say no but the thing is most teenagers will say no if they dont acutally want to. At parties people don’t need to be pressured to accept a drink. This article finally point out the ridiculousness* of this lesson.

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