Help Teens say No to Drugs and Alcohol with These 10 Practical Refusal Strategies | Deborah Farmer Kris | 3 Min Read

The majority of adults who develop substance abuse disorders had their first drink during adolescence. If we can help kids delay substance use, they will be less likely to struggle with substance abuse

In her new book “The Addiction Inoculation: Raising Healthy Kids in a Culture of Dependence,” Jessica Lahey translates the research around addiction and explores practical ways parents and educators can use this information to support kids.

Among her many findings is this: our kids need practical refusal skills — simple scripts and mental models they can draw on when they encounter peer pressure. After all, one of the strongest predictors of substance use in teens is peer use. In other words, if your child is around kids who drink and do drugs, they are more likely to drink and do drugs. And since you probably won’t be there at the moment they are first offered a drink, we need to equip them with strategies in advance. 

Here are 10 (of the many) concrete ideas Lahey shares in her book.


  1. “No, Thanks” is an underrated and effective answer. Most of the time, people don’t really care why you do or do not do something. They just move on. “I tend to forget this and get all flustered,” says Lahey, “thinking I need an elaborate excuse when this often works beautifully.”
  2. No, Everybody Isn’t Doing It.  Our kids “wildly overestimate” the rates of risky behaviors in their peers, says Lahey. And when they believe lots of people are drinking and using drugs, they are more likely to do so themselves. Simply giving kids accurate information and correcting their misperceptions can be protective. 
  3. Volunteer to Be the Designated Driver. Your friends won’t be mad at you for not drinking, says Lahey. Instead, they will be thrilled they have a sober ride home!
  4. Have a Secret Word Or Text. Decide in advance a word or emoji that they can use with friends or parents to indicate they want to leave and/or need a ride home. 
  5. Tell People You are Allergic to Alcohol. Lahey writes, “Intolerance to alcohol s a real thing, and it’s due to a genetic condition. Some people can’t break the alcohol down in their body, and it causes hives, trouble breathing, low blood pressure, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. The cure for alcohol intolerance? Not drinking!”
  6. Say Alcohol Gives You Migraines. Alcohol is a migraine trigger, so it’s a simple, plausible excuse for turning down a drink. 
  7. Tell People Addiction Runs in Your Family. Lahey, who is also a recovering alcoholic, writes, “This excuse worked for my older son for years, but it does not have to be true to use it. Feel free to throw a hypothetical relative under the bus and cite genetics as your get-out-of-drinking free card.”
  8. Tell People Your Parents Drug Test. “As long as we are throwing relatives under the bus, toss your parents under there, too,” says Lahey. “Your peers might think your parents are helicoptering jerks, but that’s fine. We don’t mind. Your safety and sobriety are more important.”
  9. Hold a Non-Alcoholic Drink. You don’t want to be the only one at a party without a drink? Fill the cup with juice, or empty a beer can into the bathroom sink and refill it with water. This trick is effective, but one note of caution from Lahey: You probably don’t want pictures of you holding colored plastic cups showing up on social media where colleges and future employers may be searching. 
  10. Know You Can Leave. As Lahey writes, “Sometimes, when we get caught up in the energy and momentum of a crowd, we tend to forget that leaving is an option. I worry people will think I’m rude or lame or old and boring. Since I got sober, however, leaving has become a reasonable response even when I’m pretty sure people will think I’m rude or lame or old and boring. Give kids a reliable exit strategy. Make sure they know they can call you at any time, with no repercussions, guilt, or pressure to tell on other kids if they need a way out of a situation that makes them uncomfortable.” 

Deborah Farmer Kris

A writer, teacher, parent, and child development expert, Deborah Farmer Kris writes regularly for PBS KIDS for Parents and NPR’s MindShift; her work has been featured several times in The Washington Post; and she is the author of the All the Time picture book series (coming out in 2022) focused on social-emotional growth. A popular speaker, Deborah has a B.A. in English, a B.S. in Education, and an M.Ed. in Counseling Psychology. Mostly, she loves finding and sharing nuggets of practical wisdom that can help kids and families thrive — including her own. You can follow her on Twitter @dfkris, contact her at [email protected], or visit her website: Parenthood365 (

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