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Helping Teens Say No

Teach your kids how to handle peer pressure with our seven strategies for resisting temptation, bad influences, and unsafe choices.

By Sarah Mahoney

It's Not as Easy as "Just Say No"

All day, every day, we hope that our teens will resist when they find themselves in a dicey situation -- whether it involves drugs or booze or looking at iffy Web sites. We cross our fingers that their first reaction will be a hearty N-O.

If we've ever tried to picture what that just-say-no situation looks like, we've probably conjured up some hokey scenario -- an unwashed thug offering a joint to our teen, who bravely pushes it away. "But peer pressure is seldom as obvious as someone shoving a beer into your child's hand," says Sharon Scott, author How to Say No and Keep Your Friends (Human Resource Development Press). "And the pressure isn't always coming from the so-called bad kids. It's also from your child's friends, who mean the world to him."

That's why just saying no doesn't work, and why programs like Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.), taught to 36 million kids a year, are relatively ineffective. (Researchers at the University of Kentucky and Virginia Commonwealth University found that students who receive D.A.R.E. training are just as likely to smoke, drink, and take drugs as students who haven't received it.)

Why Resisting Is So Hard

Part of the problem is that the section of the brain used in making such big decisions doesn't fully mature until kids reach their early 20s, says Richard R. Clayton, PhD, associate dean for research at University of Kentucky's College of Public Health, in Lexington. Yet most prevention programs teach tweens and teens strategies that emphasize "cold cognition," the rational, nonemotional way of responding. But in that moment, when someone asks your daughter to hop into the backseat or your son for the answers on a test, your kid will be in a high-emotion situation that requires "hot cognition," Clayton says, adding, "Needless to say, many of our kids are not as skilled at regulating their emotions as we'd like them to be."

Parents also underestimate the intensity of pressure. A recent poll of 46,000 teens by the Boys and Girls Clubs of America found that dealing with peers is the leading source of stress for kids, ahead of school, relationships, and violence. And parents also forget kids can be leaned on in multiple new ways, by text message, IM, or e-mail.

What's more, kids being coerced have to "size up situations in a few seconds, determine if they want to say no, and then get that across without threatening their friendships," says Scott. "After a half-minute, either their friend starts getting combative, or else the bad choice -- the invitation to ditch math class, for example -- starts to sound pretty good." What teens need is an arsenal of say-no strategies. Which is where you come in, empowering your kid with these secrets for staying strong when the pressure is on.

Teaching Individuality and Weighing the Options

Teach your teen to: Look out for number one.
Why it works: Tweens and teens are so attached to one another -- and to groupthink -- they forget to look out for themselves as individuals. Explain to your child that by thinking of herself as a solo act she can get out of tough situations without a drama. "Let's say your kid realizes there is a lot of drinking going on at a party," says Michele Borba, EdD, author of 12 Simple Secrets Real Moms Know (Jossey-Bass). "Telling her friend, 'Look, I'm uncomfortable here, and I'm leaving -- but I'll understand if you want to stay' does two things. It gives your daughter the freedom to get herself out of trouble. And, since she's not exerting any goody-two-shoes pressure on her pal, it will probably save the friendship."

Teach your teen to: Rate all the options.
Why it works: Kids get invited to do things all the time, many of which seem relatively harmless to them. Have your teen practice weighing both sides of every offer: What good can come from letting Mr. Not-Smart-But-Popular copy your science homework? (Not much. You won't make his buddy list because of this.) What bad can come? (Plenty. You could get caught, get suspended, and make your parents irate. At the very least you'll probably have to deal with the same annoying request from this kid -- or another one -- tomorrow.)

Blaming Mom and Using Humor

Teach your teens to: Blame you.
Why it works: Kids who can truthfully say, "No, I can't -- my mom said she would ground me for life" have a crucial advantage when it comes to saying no to their peers, according to researchers from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. But that means parents have to tell kids, early and often, exactly what the rules are, and what the consequences will be if they are broken. Be as specific as possible. Say, "If I catch you smoking, you will lose your allowance and be grounded for a month." "If I find out you drank, you will lose the right to drive our car." "If I learn that you've had sex, I will chaperone every date you have until you turn 18." Knowing the consequences ahead of time makes it easier for kids to stay safe.

Teach your teen to: Make "no" funny.
Why it works: Many times teens do say no, but in a way that creates unnecessary social problems. "People who expect to be taken seriously don't have to whine or yell," says Borba. A kid who makes a joke when refusing, saying, "Sorry, I'm trying to be less popular" can stay out of trouble and still save face with peers. The one who says fearfully, "No, we might get in trouble" risks being branded a lifelong wimp.

Speaking Up, Using Your Eyes, and Repeating No

Teach your teen to: Speak for herself.
Why it works: "The more assertive a kid is, the less likely she is to be victimized or pressured," Borba says. Putting yourself out there, like any other human behavior, is a habit that can be learned through repetition. As often as possible, encourage kids to speak -- politely but firmly -- on their own behalf, ordering for themselves at restaurants, for example, or asking salespeople direct questions.

Teach your teen to: Use body language.
Why it works: "If your son holds his head up high and makes eye contact, it makes his 'no' mean more," says Borba. When watching TV with teens, point out characters who look strong and move assertively, and those who seem weak and unable to protect themselves, so kids can actually see what you mean when you talk about body language.

Teach your teen to: Repeat his "no" messages.
Why it works: Tell your son that when he wants to decline something he should pick a strong, clear line and stick with it. If he is offered a cigarette, for example, he should say, "I don't want to." If the other person keeps coming at him, he should just continue saying "I don't want to" for as long as it takes to get off the hook. Experts call this the Broken Record Technique. "The more a kid says no, the more he feels it and means it," says Borba. Staying on message will probably wear out the other person -- and build your teen's resiliency for next time.

Teaching "Yes" Manners and Leading by Example

Making Yes Mean Yes
For all the time parents spend thinking about teaching kids to say no, today's teens are also having a tough time saying yes when it's okay to say yes, report experts. When offered an invitation, some kids sullenly slouch, talk in monosyllables, or even ignore the gesture entirely. "They can come across as rude and unappreciative," says Borba. Try a bit of good-natured razzing at dinner -- "Excuse me, it doesn't sound like you want that ice cream. Want to try that again?" -- to teach kids that a convincing yes includes:

Just Say No, Mom!
Face it. Most grown-ups vacillate from A-plus assertiveness to total wuss. So while you're teaching your kid to say no, beef up your own ability to do it. Then point out to your teen some of your successes, as they happen. Say, "Did you hear how I just said, 'Sorry. Too busy' when the PTA called about the fundraiser? I'm so proud of myself -- it isn't always easy to say no, but I'm glad I did."

Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the January 2008 issue of Family Circle magazine.

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