This is Red Ribbon Week. All over the nation, students are hearing a message about not doing drugs. This is great news! They need to understand the problems with drugs and hear a message that doing drugs can be harmful, not only to yourself, but also to people you love.
That said, I often wonder if the message we are sending is the one teenagers need to hear. I had the privilege of attending a Red Ribbon Week breakfast this week. At that breakfast, students had been invited as leaders at their school to hear a message about why doing drugs is such a bad decision. I left feeling like the speaker really missed an opportunity.
This particular speaker knows a lot about why drugs are a problem. He was a DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) officer and even ran an undercover business to trap and arrest drug dealers. So his story stock pile is far beyond anything I will ever have access to. On top of that, he used a compelling story from a family that has shared their experience publicly about their daughter who couldn’t overcome her drug addiction and died of a drug overdose. This story is a tough one to watch and unfortunately happens all too often in lots of communities around the world.
The problem I had with this speaker’s message was that it was definitely focused on the adults in the room. I even watched as a student laughed during his talk. Either they weren’t paying attention, or they thought the guy was terribly disconnected from his target audience. The room was mostly adults, but the attenddees that needed to hear his message and carry it back to their peers was the under 18 crowd in the room.
So where did he miss the mark? What could he have said differently, and what can we learn as adults trying to guide teenagers? I want to offer these suggestions for all of us not because I have it figured out, but because it is always good to keep reminding ourselves who we are dealing with and what we are trying to accomplish when working with teenagers.
First, recognize that the young people in the audience have probably heard several talks about not using drugs before. Because of this, it is important to put things in context for them. Explaining why they should care is much more important than sharing the latest data and stats. By sharing the information and then following it by explaining the reason it is important is because (for example), “That means 2 of your classmates will die of an opioid overdose this year.” This kind of context helps make the research and statics tangible so they will apply it to their life and share it with their peers.
Second, stop assuming teenagers understand what you mean by common terms. It’s much more effective to frame it for them. For example, this speaker used the term, “gateway drug”. This is an immediate turn-off for students. That term falls on deaf ears with any teenagers I talk to who are likely to use drugs. Why? Because it’s too easy for them to think, “Yeah, but not me.” So they ignore anything said after this comment. A simple rephrasing to, “I’m using gateway drug as a way to say it makes it easier and more likely for you to try other drugs. Not that it always leads to other drugs, but it lowers your inhibitions when it comes to resisting a friend’s offer for something harder.” Yes that’s what gateway drug means, but a teenager’s tendency is to push back against that term so you have to put it in context for them. The principle here being that you have to assume they will be defensive and explain why they should instead consider what you are talking about.
Third, give them a reason to pay attention. Let them know you understand they may not be tempted by drugs but that they know a friend who will be. Empower them to be the peer who knows what to do and how to step in. None of the students there left with an understanding of what to do if a friend is using drugs. They only hear, “Educate yourself and be a leader.” That can mean so many different things that they leave confused, not clear about what to do.
Finally, highlight the positive things that will be missed when drugs take over your life. The video was good, but it felt like an emotional tug on the heart strings that focused on all the negative effects this person’s drug use caused. These students need to hear things like, “You have a full life ahead.” “You have so much you can accomplish.” “You have a hope and future. Don’t lose it by smoking pot with your friends.”
Our family adopted three kids that should be living with their parents. Why? Because their grandfather thought smoking weed in high school was okay. The problem is that for him it led to Meth use and then to his daughter using Meth, and now three kids don’t get to live with either of their parents because of drugs. That kind of stuff should ignite anger in me, you, and the teens that hear it. It should inspire us to fight against the injustice that drugs cause.