Substance Abuse Prevention

adolescent substance abuse

Realizing the high costs to communities and the nation of rising drug and alcohol abuse and addiction, researchers, policymakers, and community-based organizers have put significant effort into finding effective prevention practices over the last several decades. This emphasis has helped develop prevention interventions and programs that identify and prevent risky behaviors before substance abuse becomes a dangerous and costly habit.

Of course, the costs go far beyond the dollars and cents spent on alcohol and drug treatment programs and healthcare. The costs of substance abuse and addiction reach into every area of individuals’ lives, becoming so destructive and controlling that future careers, health, and opportunities for living productive, active lifestyles are jeopardized.

In other words, drug-using children and teens that do not receive early treatment and interventions are likely to proceed into adult lives filled with crime, unemployment, and ongoing legal problems.

Principles of Prevention

For these reasons, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has established “Prevention Principles” designed to guide parents, educators, and community leaders in developing effective research-based, prevention programs to stop substance abuse before it starts.

As one of its first principles, NIDA states in the guide, “Preventing Drug Use Among Children and Adolescents,” that the earlier risk behaviors are identified, and addressed, the better the outcome – or life trajectory – for the child. A strong correlation exists, for example, between young children’s early aggressive behaviors, and later drug and alcohol use disorders. For more information see Adolescence Developmental Psychology.

That’s why researchers, policymakers, and substance abuse professionals stress the importance of substance abuse prevention programs – starting as early as preschool, and going through adolescence.

NIDA states several other critical principles for substance abuse prevention, including:

  • Parents play an essential role in substance abuse prevention by setting clearly defined rules, monitoring children’s activities, and praising children for appropriate behaviors. Moderate, consistent discipline when children break the rules are also part of teaching boundaries, and providing clear guidelines for appropriate social interactions and behaviors.
  • Prevention programs can be designed to intervene as early as preschool to address risk factors for drug abuse, such as aggressive behavior, poor social skills, and academic difficulties.
  • Community-based prevention programs that align with schools, clubs, faith-based organizations and the media, presenting consistent messages on the subject of drug and alcohol abuse, are more effective than those who do not.

Prevention strategies are designed to reverse or reduce the risk factors at each critical stage of human growth and development. Program goals change, of course, depending on a child’s age and stage of development. Aggression, for example, is a signal at earlier ages for possible substance abuse, while peer pressure is the key risk factor in adolescence.

Quick Fact

According to, a national survey linked violent behaviors with drug use. It found that 94% of violent teens reported using alcohol, 85% reported using marijuana and 55% reported using several illegal drugs.

Prevention Audiences

NIDA separates prevention programs based on audiences. A particular group of children might need a more specific prevention plan than another group, for example. It breaks down prevention programs designed for “sub-groups” or “audiences” as follows:

  • Universal programs – designed for the general population or all students in a school.
  • Selective programs – programs target groups at risk or subsets of the population, such as poor school achievers or children of drug abusers.
  • Indicated programs – designed for people already experimenting with drugs or alcohol.

Benefits of Substance Abuse Prevention

In addition to saving and empowering lives, the benefits to communities of effective drug prevention programs far exceed the costs. In one study, NIDA measured the cost-effectiveness and benefit-cost of two long-term, effective intervention programs:

  • Strengthening Families Program: For Parents and Youth 10–14 (SFP 10–14)
  • Guiding Good Choices (GGC) program

For every dollar spent on SFP, a $10 benefit was measured, and for every dollar spent on GGC, a $6 benefit was measured. Earlier studies also reported that for every dollar spent on drug abuse prevention programs in general, communities saved from $4 to $5 in costs for treatment and counseling programs.

Career in Substance Abuse Prevention

If you are interested in working in the field of substance abuse and addiction prevention, a psychology-based degree is the first step. Bachelor’s or master’s degrees with a specialization in substance abuse and behavioral disorders can prepare you to work for treatment facilities, community organizations, and government agencies. Request information from schools offering degrees in psychology, and inquire about coursework that can prepare you for this career.

Parents, according to the website, are the best drug abuse prevention tools available to teens. Here are some tips on talking to teens about drug and alcohol abuse:

  • Tell your kids that you don’t want them to ever, under any circumstances, use drugs. Don’t let them rationalize. Frequently discuss the harmful consequences of drug and alcohol abuse. Create a contract between you and your child that specifically lays out boundaries. You can find more resources on addiction treatment and prevention on the website.
  • Listen to your teenager – practice listening better with each conversation. You can restate what your teen says, asking your child if you understood what he or she was trying to say. Teens notice when you’re listening, and they’ll begin to feel safe and share more when they notice the effort you’re making to listen and understand.
  • Studies indicate that you should honestly answer your teens’ questions about your past drug and alcohol use. Let them know that you don’t want them mistakenly thinking that it’s ever okay to use drugs, despite your past usage.
  • Introduce the topic of drug and alcohol use when stories in the press or situations on television or in the movies present opportunities for discussion.
  • Don’t get angry or agitated if your teen shares stories or opinions that are shocking. Instead, discuss the issues with your teen in a calm, patient voice, asking him or her questions about why they believe teen drug and alcohol experimentation are okay. Ask them to evaluate the risks of such behaviors.
  • Tell your children that you know how hard it is to resist peer pressure, role-playing situations to help them verbalize how to handle these sensitive situations in the future.

Effective Substance Abuse Prevention Programs

Over the past few decades, the field of substance abuse prevention has experienced a rise in the number of effective prevention programs, based on scientifically-based research studies and grants. Researchers categorize the prevention programs according to the “audience” or “sub-group” of individuals that the program hopes to affect. Some of the programs used today are:

Universal Programs to Reach an Entire Class or Student Population

Caring School Community Program
Eric Schaps, Ph.D.
Caring School Community Program
Developmental Studies Center
2000 Embarcadero, Suite 305
Oakland, CA 94606-5300
Phone: 510-533-0213
Fax: 510-464-3670
E-mail: [email protected]
Web site:

Classroom-Centered (CC) and Family-School Partnership (FSP) Intervention
Nicholas Ialongo, Ph.D.
Department of Mental Health
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg
School of Public Health
Johns Hopkins University
624 N. Broadway
Baltimore, MD 21205
Phone: 410-550-3441
Fax: 410-550-3461
E-mail: [email protected]

Guiding Good Choices (GGC)
J. David Hawkins, Ph.D.
Social Development Research Group
University of Washington
9725 Third Avenue NE, Suite 401
Seattle, WA 98115
Phone: 206-543-7655
Fax: 206-543-4507
E-mail: [email protected]
Web site:

Life Skills Training (LST) Program
Gilbert Botvin, Ph.D.
Institute for Prevention Research
Weill Medical College of Cornell University
411 East 69th Street, Room 203
New York, NY 10021
Phone: 212-746-1270
Fax: 212-746-8390
E-mail: [email protected]
Web site:

Lions-Quest Skills for Adolescence (SFA).
Marvin Eisen, Ph.D.
Population Studies Center
The Urban Institute
2100 M Street, NW
Washington, DC 20037
Phone: 202-261-5858
Fax: 202-452-1840
E-mail: [email protected]
Web site:

Project ALERT
Phyllis L. Ellickson, Ph.D.
Director, Center for Research on
Maternal, Child and Adolescent Health
The RAND Corporation
1700 Main Street
P.O. Box 2138
Santa Monica, CA 90407-2138
Phone: 310-393-0411
Fax: 310-451-7062
E-mail: [email protected]
Web site:

Project STAR Karen Bernstein, M.P.H.
University of Southern California
Institute for Prevention Research
1000 S. Fremont Avenue, Unit #8 Alhambra, CA 91803
Phone: 626-457-6687
Fax: 626-457-6695
E-mail: [email protected]

Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies (PATHS)
Mark T. Greenberg, Ph.D.
Prevention Research Center
Pennsylvania State University
110 Henderson Building-South
University Park, PA 16802-6504
Phone: 814-863-0112
Fax: 814-865-2530
E-mail: [email protected]
Web site:

The Strengthening Families Program: For Parents and Youth 10–14 (SFP 10–14)
Virginia Molgaard, Ph.D.
Prevention Program Development
The Strengthening Families Program:
For Parents and Youth 10–14
Institute for Social and Behavioral Research
Iowa State University
2625 North Loop Drive, Suite 500
Ames, IA 50010-8296
Phone: 515-294-8762
Fax: 515-294-3613
E-mail: [email protected]
Web site:
Selective Programs
Researchers design Selective Programs for children and teens that have started experimenting with drugs and/or alcohol.

Adolescents Training and Learning to Avoid Steroids (ATLAS)
Linn Goldberg, M.D., FACSM
Division of Health Promotion
and Sports Medicine Oregon Health & Science University
3181 SW Sam Jackson Park Road
Portland, OR 97201-3098
Phone: 503-494-8051
Fax: 503-494-1310
E-mail: [email protected]
Web site:

Coping Power
John E. Lochman, Ph.D.
Department of Psychology
University of Alabama
P.O. Box 870348
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487
Phone: 205-348-7678
Fax: 205-348-8648
E-mail: [email protected]

Focus on Families (FOF)
Richard F. Catalano, Ph.D.
Social Development Research Group
9725 Third Avenue, NE
Suite 401 University of Washington
Seattle, WA 98115
Phone: 206-543-6382
Fax: 206-543-4507
E-mail: [email protected]
Web site:

The Strengthening Families Program (SFP)
Karol Kumpfer, Ph.D.
University of Utah
Department of Health Promotion
300 S. 1850 E., Room 215
Salt Lake City, UT 84112-0920
Phone: 801-581-7718
Fax: 801-581-5872
E-mail: [email protected]
Web site:

Indicated Programs

Researchers design Selective Programs for sub-groups of children and teens.

Project Towards No Drug Abuse (Project TND)
Steve Sussman, Ph.D., FAAHB
Institute for Health Promotion
and Disease Prevention Research
Departments of Preventive Medicine
and Psychology
University of Southern California
1000 S. Fremont Avenue, Unit 8
Building A-4, Room 4124
Alhambra, CA 91803
Phone: 626-457-6635
Fax: 626-457-4012
E-mail: [email protected]

Reconnecting Youth Program (RY)
Beth McNamara, MSW
Director of Programs & Trainers
Reconnecting Youth Program
E-mail: [email protected]
Web site:

Source: listing from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) website.

Our Partner Listings