European prevention experts: talking with children about dangers of alcohol is not effective

 In News

Tuuli Jõesaar


Talking about dangers can increase curiosity and encourage substance use

How should I talk with children about alcohol so that they would learn to keep away from it? “You don’t have to talk about it. You just need to say that they are not allowed to drink it – that’s enough. In addition, you’ll need to consume alcohol responsibly yourself, e.g. one drink with dinner, or not use alcohol at all” replies prevention expert Gregor Burkhart from European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA).

Future prevention trainers from different countries gathered to Tallinn during last week to learn about evidence-based practices during a 3-day training. We are used with prevention that consists of admonishing. But why don’t experts consider it effective?

Frightening children is not effective

“Children learn from our behavior”, describes Burkhart. Long explanations provided by parents are not effective. In addition, warning children that using alcohol, cigarettes and drugs is harmful for health and can kill them, is also not effective. Loss of health that will happen in years is too abstract construct for children or teenagers and they can interpret it as a lie. 15-year-old, who comes home smelling of cigarettes cannot imagine dying of lung cancer 30 years later. “Will he die now? No, he will not. Hence, what you tell him is wrong. And, if you tell something that is not true, then everything you tell your children seems untrue, nonsense. Who cares what happens in 30 years!” explains psychologist and trainer Rachele Donini.

Unintentional advertising

Burkhart adds that young people are mostly affected by peer pressure. Parents need to express that they do not tolerate substance use. “If teenagers start hanging out with friends then as a parent you need to say: I assume that you will not use alcohol, I would be angry if you would. You don’t need to tell anything else or guide their attention to alcohol. If you will talk two hours about alcohol – how bad it is – then your child will remember in two weeks’ time that alcohol is somehow special”, he says.

When child is not at home, he is affected by peers. Prevention should also not be “noisy” at schools, explains Burkhart. Estonian National Institute for Health Development confirms that police experts are still invited to schools to give talks about substances and their harmful effects or to scare children with drug sniffing dogs. Currently an activist and writer Sass Henno is visiting schools and sharing his experiences with students, advertising it as prevention. He carries out lectures about how he was using alcohol and drugs and then gave these up – this worries National Institute for Health Development.

“He is bringing attention on substances while talking about its harmfulness. Problem is that most children are not interested about alcohol or other drugs, but through these kinds of activities their attention is drawn on substances. I also believe that every website which encourages parents to talk about the risks of alcohol use during early age, is paid by alcohol industry”, expresses Burkhart. “Sensation-seekers, vulnerable children and children without opinions on substances will more likely try these after these kinds of experiences. Other children are less likely affected and they just enjoy the show”, he adds.

How could the schools support prevention, if lectures are not effective? “Prevention has to be invisible. It is easier to change behavior when people do not realize how we affect their behavior. Otherwise they will say that they don’t want to be affected and complain that they are manipulated”, explains the expert. Prevention starts outside from school, organized environmentally. Availability of alcohol, cigarettes and drugs should not be easy, these should not be visible in public places. Schools can teach students to use critical thinking skills. “Adults are more aware about their feelings and can assess how charismatic performances affect us. Young people do not have these skills yet, but we can help to develop their skills to critically appraise the messages they receive. This is part of the education – teach the teachers so that they can help youngsters to acquire life skills, including decision-making skills and skills needed to resist peer pressure”, adds Rachele Donini.

Socially useful work

This is all a long-term process. But what should the schoolteacher or director do immediately if a student is smoking cigarettes or cannabis? “This is simple!”, tells Burkhart. He instructs that school must set rules on substance use in school premises and close to school – students, teachers and parents are expected not to use substances and there will be consequences if people will break the rules.

Consequences should not stigmatize students or remove them from school or from studies. “Students who initiate with alcohol or drugs or use these are usually ones, who have other problems as well. Let’s keep these students at school, in safe environment. If they are not at school, they communicate more likely with peers who have more serious issues, and we will lose them”, adds Rachele Donini. Consequence should be public and useful, for example, remove a graffiti from a wall, paint something etc. Other peers who see this kind of activity understand that forbidden activities have uncomfortable consequences.

People are more likely affected about rules of “no use” than we think. That means that silently allowed smoking corners close to schools should also be forbidden. Burkhart explains that this is due to the learning experience – even if one student tells others how great it is to smoke or use cannabis, this has less effect on peers if they are not actually able to do that, smell that or ask friends to share their cigarettes.

Experiences inspire
Prevention expert Gregor Burkhart and psychologist Rachele Donini trained future prevention trainers from different European countries during last week in Tallinn. Participants from Estonia, Latvia, Croatia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia took part of the training that was organized in cooperation with National Institute for Health Development.

The purpose of the training was to unify prevention quality all over Europe as ineffective and harmful methods are still widely used. Trainers highlighted that effective prevention methods are based on science and have been previously evaluated.

“Sharing only information about substances, sharing experiences of former substance users, one-time-only activities and shocking tactics are not based on science, but are used in the name of “prevention” quite often. These kinds of activities can have harmful effects”, highlights Karin Streimann, junior researcher from National Institute for Health Development. Neuroscientists have found that scaring and sharing experiences of former substance users can inspire young people who are drawn by danger and new experiences.


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