Published on January 31, 2019

There’s a better approach than ‘Just Say No’ Ther's a better approach than 'Just Say No'

Parents are right to be concerned about whether their children will experiment with drugs, but they shouldn’t count on a “Just Say No” talk being enough.

“Warning kids about drugs and alcohol has been shown to be ineffective in preventing their using,” said Bart L. Main, Jr., MD, a specialist in child and adolescent psychiatry who practices at the Cape Cod Healthcare Centers for Behavioral Health in Hyannis. “In contrast, open communication about feelings and mindfulness training have been shown to be much more effective.”

Today’s parents probably remember the “Just Say No” campaign of the 1980s and early ’90s that was championed by First Lady Nancy Reagan. The campaign had good intentions, but its effectiveness is less evident, Dr. Main said.

“The documentation and statistics that were kept about that suggested that it made absolutely no difference to drug and alcohol use,” he said. “The kind of advertisements that have worked, especially in tobacco use, have been created by kids themselves showing very, very graphically, sometimes in even morbid ways, the effects of tobacco smoking. Messages from your peers are really effective for kids.”

The Best Approach

So if a direct talk about drugs is of limited value, what’s the best approach for parents?

“Talking about emotions is really, really helpful,” he said. “Our society doesn't address people's emotions very well. We’re very focused on entertainment and electronics, kids especially.

“Kids aren’t tuned into relationships as much as they should be. In life, they’re going to have intimate and group relationships and deal with people in authority positions.”

He recommended a board game called The Talking, Feeling & Doing Game as a good way for families to help children build communications skills.

“At some point, there's going to be tremendous peer pressure on them and if they don’t have language to talk about that kind of stuff, then the kids can be in tough shape,” he said.

Dr. Main also recommended participation in Calmer Choice, a mindfulness program that is offered in many Cape Cod schools.

“One of the things it teaches kids is how to be resilient under stress,” he said.  “You can explain to a kid that something is dangerous and they can understand the reality of that, but it doesn't mean that they won’t face temptations to experiment.

“The trouble with drugs and alcohol is that for some people, a single use is effective in terms of allaying anxiety, especially in social situations. What we want to do is teach them alternatives so that they don’t rely on smoking weed to be able to feel comfortable socially.”

Dr Main had a final thought to emphasize to parents.

“They know their child better than anyone else does and if they feel a sense of unease or they sense distress in the kid, they need to ask about that,” he said. “You shouldn’t avoid the subject because you're afraid of stirring something up.”