By Hillary Boles, National Board Certified Teacher
In 1984, then-First Lady Nancy Reagan was on a routine school visit to Longfellow Elementary School in Oakland, California. A young student asked Reagan what she should do if a peer ever offered her drugs. Reagan’s answer became a rallying cry for an entire generation– “Just say no.”
Of course, that simple answer comes from a position of privilege. The “just” in the response makes it feel as if it is so easy to say no. Time has shown that Just Say No and Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) were expensive failed campaigns aimed at the perceived drug crisis of the 1980s and 1990s. You have probably heard adults in your life talking about these topics and you want an open and honest discussion, rather than a directive.
As a teenager today, you understand the implications of choices deeply. Recently I asked my students how they say no–not necessarily to substances, but to anything they feel uncomfortable with, and I was struck by how confident they were in their responses. Young people today are a far cry from the “people pleasing” generations before them.
Practice makes perfect
“It’s a judgment call,” Nathan, a senior, said, “Make sure you know you are making a commitment to your decision.” Nathan’s response echoed the advice of many of my students–think through a decision thoroughly. Of course, when presented with a decision, it can be challenging at that moment to make the right decision. In my family, we rehearse scenarios so my teenage boys can think of their responses in advance. I might have them imagine they are shopping at the mall with friends, unsupervised, when they might be offered a vape. Or maybe they are at school when a good friend asks to peek at their test. Working through these scenarios might seem silly, but if they do happen, you will have an automatic response.
Actually say no
At some point, you will need to respond to requests. You might feel awkward or impolite saying no, but there are many strategies to make the experience less painful.
If someone asks you to do something you don’t want to do, it’s okay to simply not respond. It might feel rude at the time, but the other party will likely forget about it!
Blame your adults
Go ahead and say your adults won’t let you do something. As a parent and a teacher, I’m perfectly okay with being thrown under the bus. Your peers might not know how strict or lenient your adults are, so take advantage of that fact!
Create a code
Come up with a code word or phrase with your adults that you can use discreetly. You might call your adult and say, “Hey, are we still going to Gigi’s tomorrow?” You might actually call your grandmother “Nana,” but Gigi is your codeword for when you want your adults to help you say no to something.
Be awkwardly honest
This strategy is for those who might not want to be bothered again. Be extremely honest; “I am not going to get in that car with you when you have been drinking because I don’t want to hurt anyone else or myself.” Or “I don’t vape because I have asthma and any irritation to my lungs can put me in the ER.” Sometimes honesty mixed with a specific explanation can set clear boundaries and even teach your peer a lesson.
Find a friend who says no
If you are in a group situation and you have that outspoken friend, use that to your advantage. Shoot them a look or send a side text and ask them to vocalize your decision. There is also power in numbers–saying no with your friend will send a clear message to the peer.
Feel good about your decision
Because many of you know at least one person in your life with substance abuse, you work even harder to make the right decisions. “I get annoyed when I see the same people make the same mistakes over and over,” admitted Max, a senior. “I am more willing to say no when a family member has abuse issues.”
2019 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that a full 16 percent of children are living with at least one parent with a substance abuse disorder. Young people today have the unfortunate experience of seeing repercussions played out before them and are more confident in their decisions. It’s easier to pass up substances when they destroy a family member.
Use your tools
Finally, teenagers in my life are quick to point to advancements in their generation that help them stay healthy. Mental health is becoming increasingly important in our national dialogue. When confronted with an impaired driver, you have the option to use a rideshare app. Mindfulness practices and the Be Strong App at your fingertips can effectively and discretely help with anxiety or peer conflicts. While you are certainly living in a more complicated time than generations before you, you have–and use–tools to assist in this navigation.
The next time you are put into a pressured situation, consider that a moment of awkwardness is better than a lifetime of regret! How do you say no?