Tell Them About It: Preventing Addictions by Creating Awareness

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Dr. Emilia O'Neill-BakerTalking about drugs and alcohol to adolescents can be a pretty scary thing. They are at the point where they are not kids anymore but are not yet adults with whom we can have an easy discussion. They can also be very resistant to and defiant of anything we tell them.

No matter how difficult or complicated we feel this topic is, the most important thing is to talk about it. It is very important to create a safe, respectful place where the kids will not feel judged or evaluated. Talk to the kids in a nonauthoritative way — i.e. not a teacher-student lecture — but as a conversation where both you and they are learning about the topic and about each other.

I have discovered that the best thing to do is start by asking them what they know about drugs. It is an effective way to reduce tension, learn how they feel about it and whether they have any direct or indirect experience with it. Talking about their perception will give you tools to clarify myths and answer a lot of questions. When we generate significant learning experiences by describing and making the information meaningful for adolescents, we empower them to make wiser decisions.

I would like to share some of the things I use when I train teachers, counselors, care providers and parents. They have proven to be successful when used in school and at home.

Some information you can share to create awareness:

The word addiction means being enslaved to a practice, a habit or a thing. An addict, also from the Latin addictus, is defined as a slave who has been bound as a slave to his creditor. Since they are trying to define their personality and independence at this point, adolescents feel very impacted when we talk about them becoming someone’s slave (the dealer), depending on something to feel good (the drug) and having to surrender their money and resources to others.

The earlier a person starts smoking, drinking or using other drugs, the greater the risk of developing an addiction. Nine out of 10 people with an addiction involving nicotine, alcohol or other drugs began using these substances before they were 18.

Addiction affects people of all ages. Babies of addicted mothers are born premature and underweight, or are even born addicted. Adolescents tend to do poorly in school or drop out. They are more at risk for infectious diseases, violence and unplanned pregnancy. If they start young, drugs can slow their intellectual development and affect their behavior. They have problems thinking clearly, paying attention and remembering things. They develop poor social skills, and, as adults, their work performance and personal relationships suffer (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2014).

Drug addiction is a brain disease because drugs change both the structure and the normal functioning of the brain. The changes can be long-lasting, can lead to behaviors that are self-harming and harming to others and, if not treated on time, even to death. Share images of the normal and the addicted brain.

People use drugs to feel good, but this effect is only temporary. Often, individuals will feel anxious and afraid of how they may feel if they stop using. They are indeed slaves to their addiction and their fears. Adolescents feel a lot of pressure from peers. They may engage in risky behaviors to impress friends and express independence from social and family rules. It is important to remind them that the opposite will happen when they become dependent on the drugs.

Use many images and examples. Songs, videos and testimonials are great techniques to grab the adolescents’ attention.

Remember: Knowledge is power.

Emilia O'Neill-Baker, Ph.D.,  is a bilingual clinical and educational psychologist and a licensed professional clinical counselor. She is certified as a specialist in the treatment of addictions, trauma and compassion fatigue. She is also an international trainer, consultant and author. Contact her at dremilia4change@gmail.com.