By Vanessa Rogers, youth worker and author of the new set of books for those helping young people make informed decisions about alcohol, drugs and tobacco.

Being a young person can be difficult. Fact. There are so many choices to make, as well as lots of physical, intellectual, emotional, and social concerns to deal with, from friendships (and more intimate relationships) to decisions about education, training or work.

Some of the biggest dilemmas can be about whether to smoke, drink alcohol or try drugs, with different messages being received from school, friends, parents, community and the media. So social education, that includes drug and alcohol awareness, is really important in enabling young people to gain the knowledge and skills they need to make informed choices.

Have a look at my Top 12 Tips for talking to young people about drugs and alcohol. They are not exhaustive, but hopefully will help you to provide sessions that are engaging and educational, as well as thought provoking and fun:

  1. Be prepared and informed. Even the most knowledgeable drug support workers is likely to admit that no one can know it all. Drugs change, the way people use them change – even the names change; but don’t think that because you are not a drugs expert you cannot offer useful support, or facilitate successful drug awareness sessions with young people. Make sure that your drugs knowledge is as up-to-date as possible and know where to find good quality information to fill the gaps.
  2. Don’t make assumptions. Lots of teenagers pretend to be far more knowledgeable or experienced on the subject of drugs than they actually are. Accept that if the young people you are working with are using a particular drug they will probably know far more than you do about the effects – but that doesn’t mean that they understand the health risks, or know the legal status. Start any work by exploring the young people’s values and attitudes to both legal and illegal substances, and assess knowledge before targeting with specific topics.
    Use this ‘Drug Chair Swap’ activity to assess knowledge in a fun way! »
  3. Avoid using scare tactics. They are unlikely to work and are more likely to put young people off engaging. Seeing pictures of drug-ravaged adults or telling horrific stories may have an instant impact, but they can also lead to thoughts including: ‘They are old, so it doesn’t matter’, ‘I don’t use that drug so it isn’t relevant’ and the old favourite, ‘It won’t happen to me!’ Also resist the temptation to make sweeping statements – for example, ‘If you smoke you will get lung cancer’ – because most young people will know this is simply not true, or can cite relatives who have lived to a hundred smoking 60 a day! It is much better to qualify what you say (e.g. ‘Smoking really increases the risks of developing lung cancer’), and then support them to look at other health risks associated with smoking, including those that can affect younger people, so that you are encouraging them to learn, not arguing a point.
  4. You cannot stop young people taking drugs – but you can help make sure that they have the information, skills and confidence to make healthy choices for themselves. When planning drug awareness work, include looking at the social consequences; for example, the increased risk of aggressive behaviour due to false confidence after using amphetamines, or having unprotected sex whilst drunk, as well as the legal and health implications. Plan activities that increase self-esteem, discuss personal boundaries and develop young people’s confidence to say what they really want, rather than bowing to peer pressure.
  5. Listen – to young people’s opinions and concerns. Create opportunities for them to discuss how they feel about a wide range of drug related issues, including the legal status of drugs, penalties for misuse and health debates. Explore issues such as drugs in sports and the impact of media and celebrity culture on drinking and smoking. Magazines, newspapers and TV are always rich sources of discussion topics to spark debate.
  6. Remain non-judgmental. You may have strong feelings about drugs and alcohol, but before you share your personal opinion consider how useful that is to someone else. It is far more beneficial to explore values and opinions, differing points of view (whether you support them or not) and offer correct information, than it is to take the stance that ‘all drugs are bad’, or ‘I can stop people taking drugs by telling them about my experiences.’ After all, if a young person feels judged they are far less likely to open up and far more likely to be defensive.
  7. Accept that people make mistakes. Whilst youth workers can support young people if they make bad choices, they cannot stop them making them. It is important that young people understand that mistakes do not make you a ‘bad person’, and ensure that young people know that if they do make mistakes, or feel worried about the behaviour of others, there are support services that can help.
  8. Only give out correct information. If you don’t know something, say so and offer to find out! It is far better than telling a young person something that they later find out is incorrect. One duff answer can make everything else you say written off as wrong too. On a practical note, make sure that all leaflets and posters are up-to-date and that you get your facts from reputable sources.
  9. Set clear boundaries. When talking about drugs with young people, remind them of your professional boundaries and the fact that some things cannot be kept secret. Ensure that your organisation has a clear drugs policy that all staff are familiar with, which includes sanctions and rights of appeal.
  10. Consider cultural differences – both within the staff group and young people. Take these differences into account when planning your curriculum to make sure that what you offer is appropriate. Also consider whether parents should be involved or notified of what is planned. If you are not sure about something – ask.
  11. Consider gender differences. Young men and women often have different reasons for their decisions about whether to experiment with smoking, alcohol or drugs. Certainly research would suggest that young women choose to drink different drinks, e.g. vodka, whilst young men prefer drinking lager or strong cider.
  12. Evaluate and review. Make sure that feedback from young people offers you more than, ‘I had a good time’. Whilst we want young people to enjoy their time with youth workers, it is also important that they learn, too. Try and build in fun ways to evaluate and gain feedback on the three key skills area – knowledge, skills and attitudes.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.

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