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Empowering Teens When it Comes to Drug Use

(This content is being used for illustrative purposes only; any person depicted in the content is a model)

By Cheryl Steinberg

We already know that campaigns like “Just Say ‘No’” and D.A.R.E. don’t work. Neither has the war on drugs. But there’s  a new school of thought that seeks to empower teenagers when it comes to their drug use, with an emphasis on the decision-making part of the process.

Telling kids ‘no’ and *trying* to enforce an abstinence-based belief system doesn’t work. And, in fact, it may have the opposite of the desired effect – to keep your kids off drugs.

This different approach – I won’t say “new” as it was started back in 1990 – is called The Seven Challenges program and it aims to help adolescents and young adults make their own decisions about not only drugs but, about how they want the rest of their lives to look.  

For decades, Dr. Robert Schwebel has been spreading the word about this novel approach and the evidence base that backs it. For him, the approach involves working with teens to support them in considering the choices they make about substance use.

And what they have found is that, ironically, this is the most powerful way to influence the behavior of young people and it’s way more effective than pushing an agenda that will only result in resistance from young people.

The Seven Challenges approach operates on the belief that recovery begins when people are willing to take that first look at their drug use behavior and then consider the possibility that it could be problematic. The Seven Challenges program also recognizes the incidence of co-occurring disorders and so it also has the teens begin by addressing co-occurring psychological and situational issues.

The participants meet with a counselor in a group setting where they talk about drugs, drug use, and consequences. These are the tenets of the program:

The Seven Challenges: Challenging Ourselves to Make Wise Decisions About Alcohol and Other Drugs

#1. We decided to open up and talk honestly about ourselves and about alcohol and other drugs.

#2. We looked at what we liked about alcohol and other drugs, and why we were using them.

#3. We looked at our use of alcohol and other drugs to see if it had caused harm, or could cause harm.

#4. We looked at our responsibility and the responsibility of others for our problems.

#5. We thought about where we seemed to be headed, where we wanted to go, and what we wanted to accomplish.

#6. We made thoughtful decisions about our lives and about our use of alcohol and other drugs

#7. We followed through on our decisions about our lives and our drug use. If we saw problems, we went back to earlier challenges and mastered them.

Empowering Teens When it Comes to Drug Use

It can be difficult for well-meaning counselors to resist the urge of hammering into their clients the harms of drug use and, ultimately, pushing their agendas. But the Seven Challenges program encourages teens and young people to first understand that they have options and then to weigh the costs and benefits of their options in deciding to make changes. The counselors also support their clients in succeeding in the goals they set for themselves.

Other (read: traditional) approaches take on “harm-based counseling” and are also referred to as the “mad rush for abstinence,” which have saturated the field for so long that it’s very hard for counselors trained to understand that people need to make their own decisions about drugs. And this includes understanding even the potential benefits they get from using drugs, and that they’d have to give up if they were to choose to quit or cut back. Basically, it’s all part of helping them to develop an informed decision.

Substance Use Disorder can require more intensive interventions in order to physically remove the person who struggles from situations that involve drugs and drug use. Alcohol and drug treatment programs that offer medical detox and inpatient rehab might be best suited for the teen in your life that is struggling to stop the cycle of their substance abuse. Please call toll-free 1-800-951-6135 to speak with an Addiction Specialist today.

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