The Importance of Early Education to Prevent Future AddictionMany people think of drug and alcohol addiction as problems affecting adults. However, in reality, patterns of substance abuse and addictive behavior are often first established in adolescence, or at an even younger age. This means that early education plays a critical role in preventing the onset of substance use problems in later life.

Why Are Teenagers at Risk?

Anyone who begins abusing drugs or alcohol can eventually develop diagnosable symptoms of addiction. However, research shows that people who begin consuming drugs or addiction/drug-abuse/alcohol-addiction/” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener noreferrer” title=”alcohol”>alcohol as teens or preteens have a greater chance of transitioning into addiction when compared to people who never drink or take drugs until they reach adulthood.[i] There are several possible explanations for this fact, including:

  • The potential for drugs and/or alcohol to interfere with normal brain development
  • The psychological/emotional impact of growing up in an unstable home environment
  • The psychological/emotional impact of exposure to various forms of child abuse, as well as child neglect

In addition, even when teenagers don’t experience any disruptions in their expected brain development, they lack at least some of the adult ability to make rational decisions and predict the outcome of their actions. This means that adolescents have higher chances of consuming drugs or alcohol without recognizing the risks involved in their behavior.

Another factor in teen development underscores this same point. As they grow older, children naturally express a growing curiosity about the world around them. In some cases, this curiosity is revealed in a willingness to experiment with substance use. Coupled with poor decision-making skills, an experimental frame of mind increases the odds that a dangerous pattern of drug or alcohol intake will begin. Children with substance-using parents have higher chances of viewing involvement with drugs or alcohol as acceptable, even normal, behavior.

Early Substance Use Risk Factors

Experts at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) note that key risk factors for early substance use[ii] can arise at any point during childhood or adolescence. Even as infants or toddlers, children can be exposed to factors that make future drug or alcohol intake more likely. Examples of these factors include:

  • Lack of bonding between a child and parent
  • Exposure to a parent or caregiver who takes part in substance abuse
  • Having parents with poorly developed parenting skills

As children grow older, they may encounter a new set of risk factors for early onset substance use problems. Common examples include:

  • Poor academic performance
  • Disruptive behavior in the classroom
  • Lack of adequate social skills

For teenagers, the most pressing risk for early consumption of drugs and/or alcohol is a circle of peers that includes current substance users. In addition to making it seem normal to drink or get high, such friends often model delinquency or disruptive behavior. NIDA reports other potential factors that include:

  • Easy access to drugs or alcohol
  • A larger social atmosphere that views substance use as the norm

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Formal Early Education Programs

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and NIDA report that formal early education programs are proven as effective tools for preventing future cases of substance abuse and addiction. However, to achieve positive results, such programs must meet certain research-based standards. These standards cover:

  • The way in which prevention programs are structured
  • The presentation of the educational material
  • The way in which the educational material is delivered to its chosen audience

Most formal programs for teenagers and younger children take place in school. School-based education is the oldest approach to prevention, as well as the approach with the greatest proven effectiveness. An increasing number of programs are family based and involve both children and their parents. In addition, today’s technological environment makes it possible to administer abuse/addiction prevention remotely through computers and smartphones.

Information about addictive substances forms the backbone of educational presentations in prevention programs. However, research shows that, on its own, this information will not stop adolescents and preteens from experimenting with drugs and alcohol. Instead, to have a real-world impact, drug and alcohol facts must be accompanied by supporting approaches such as skill-building exercises, peer counseling and enforcement of existing substance-related rules and laws.

The method of information delivery can have a major influence on the success of drug and alcohol education intended for young people. In every case, the most effective programs adapt to meet the needs of a specific population. Examples of such targeted populations include:

  • Adolescent/preteen boys
  • Adolescent/preteen girls
  • Urban youth
  • Rural youth
  • Spanish-speaking adolescents and preteens

Media-Based Education

Formal programs are not the only way to help young children and adolescents avoid drug and alcohol problems. SAMHSA notes that effective, educational communication can take place in a range of formats,[iii] including:

  • Social media campaigns
  • Public service announcements (PSAs) and other public campaigns
  • Efforts to change the ways that media portray substance use

In addition to providing basic information on the dangers of substance use, social media campaigns model new behaviors and promote the benefits of drug- and alcohol-free living. PSAs raise general awareness of the dangers of abuse/addiction, especially when coupled with prominent posters, billboards and online messages.

A variety of governmental and private groups take part in media advocacy campaigns intended to alter the ways that TV shows, movies and commercials treat the subject of substance use. Similar types of groups make ongoing efforts to teach critical thinking skills that help offset pro-drug and alcohol messaging.

Special Presentations and Speaking Programs

There are also other ways to reach out to teens and younger children. In recent years, many schools, treatment centers and juvenile detention centers have hosted short programs designed to provide real-world examples of the harm that can come from early substance experimentation. As a rule, these programs feature speakers with firsthand experience of drug and alcohol problems. By relaying the details of their personal histories, these speakers function as cautionary tales and provide vivid examples of what not to do.

One such program, Steered Straight, is headed by Mike Deleon, an acclimated ex-offender who spent 12 years in prison before turning his life around. Over the years, Deleon has taken Steered Straight to venues in over 40 states. He has also created documentaries designed to bring awareness to America’s growing opioid epidemic.[iv]  “I want families to understand the problem is real and they need to seek help before it gets any worse. Prevention programs, such as Steered Straight, are an important part of the solution,” says DeLeon.

Another example of this personalized approach to education is The Cop and the Convict,[v] a program created by recovered addict Tim Ryan and Chicago-area police detective Rich Wistocki. Ryan, who also served a stint in prison, lost his son through an opioid overdose.

Together with Wistocki, they provide a thorough overview of the dangers that come with teen and preteen substance use. Wistocki says, “Our program teaches parents how to have these important technology conversations with their children. If parents want to know what kind of drugs their kids are doing, just look in their cell phones.”

  1.  National Institute on Drug Abuse: Drugs, Brains and Behavior – The Science of Addiction
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse: Preventing Drug Use Among Children and Adolescents (In Brief)
  3. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: Center for the Application of Prevention Technologies – Prevention Approaches
  4. CNN: The New “Just Say No to Drugs”
  5. Chicago Tribune: Cop and Convict Join Forces for Naperville Anti-Drug Program
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