Guiding Teens to Help Their Peers and Overcome Two Common Fears Preventing Teens from Speaking Up
By Stephen Hill, J.D., January 4, 2022
Over the past six years I have shared my story and message with thousands of students across the country. One of the most common questions I get asked:
How do I help a friend I am concerned about who is using drugs and/or alcohol?
I always answer this question thoroughly with a step by step guide to best help a peer heading down the wrong path of substance misuse. However, I learned that just answering this question alone is sometimes not enough because of two common fears preventing students from speaking up that must be addressed.
In this article I outline a step by step guide to talk with a peer heading down the wrong path of substance use, explain two fears preventing teens from speaking up to adults when necessary, and offer ways to help teens overcome their fears.
Guide for confronting someone about their substance use:
- Pick a time and place for a serious, in-depth conversation in a peaceful environment without distractions or interruptions.
- Give your friend the benefit of the doubt by first speaking to them one on one when your friend is sober. I have found that the initial conversation is best done one on one because people—especially teenagers—act and talk differently when they are in groups.
- Always come from a place of care and concern. I once had a therapist call it a “carefrontation.” Do not judge or attack someone as that will only make things worse. Gently ease into the conversation and give specific examples as to why you are concerned.
- Give your friend a chance to respond and be an active listener when they are talking. Listening closely to what they are saying will help you get a better understanding of their mindset.
- If the conversation ends on a positive note, talk about the next steps you can take to help them such as speaking with a counselor and being a positive support for them. If the conversation ends on a negative note, do not get discouraged, do not give up, and remember it’s not your fault. Try and revisit the conversation again at a later time.
It is hard enough for a teenager to make the mature decision to confront their peers about substance misuse. But the next step is when things can get even tougher and fear really sets in.
- Wait and see. If your friend makes positive changes and stops using substances, then that is an amazing accomplishment and you should feel very proud for taking the initiative to help another in need.
However, if the person does not change their behavior, things are likely to get progressively worse. This is the point where teens need to make an even more difficult decision—do you just stand by and watch it happen because “I tried talking with them. There is nothing more I can do,” or do you tell a trusted adult who is in a position to intervene and potentially get the person the help they need? It has to be the latter.
Fear sets in
I have been at this exact point with many students after an assembly or breakout session. I have found that most students are open to speaking with their peers about their concerns, but when I talk about speaking up to an adult (e.g. parent, counselor, teacher, principal, coach) some students get quiet with a fearful, uncomfortable look on their face. Here are the reasons why:
- Fear of damaging the friendship
- Fear of being labeled a “snitch” or “rat”
How to inform and educate students to overcome these fears
If a student is concerned about damaging their relationship with the friend they are trying to help, let them know that being a true friend sometimes requires making hard decisions. Prepare students for a negative response and reinforce that their friend’s response is out of their control. The friendship may suffer in the short term, but the hope is that it will make it stronger in the end.
If after speaking to an adult your friend’s response is something like, “How could you tell on me like that? I will never trust you again!” then your response should be, “I spoke up because I am your friend and I am very concerned about you. I tried talking to you one on one and nothing changed. I did not speak up to hurt you, I did it to help you. I hope one day you will understand that.”
I recommend first speaking to a school counselor, student assistance counselor, social worker, or psychologist because they must keep certain communication confidential. It is vital to keep reminding students about the confidentiality of their conversations with certain professionals and what the exceptions are (i.e. intent to harm themselves or another).
If a student is concerned about being labeled a snitch or a rat, explain that a snitch is someone who tells on other people just to get themselves out of trouble or get someone else in trouble. Conversely, if you speak up with the motive to help someone you are concerned about, that certainly does not make you a snitch—it makes you a courageous person trying to do the right thing.
Shortening the timeline because of fentanyl
The landscape of addiction prevention and treatment has changed because of fentanyl, an extremely powerful opioid that is causing mass overdose deaths throughout the country. A few weeks ago I spoke at Jonathan Dayton High School in Springfield, New Jersey. During the Q&A a student asked, “What should I do if I am concerned about a friend who is at risk of overdose?”
A few years ago my assumption would have been that this student’s friend is using heroin. However, today, that is no longer the case. Now everyone who uses drugs is at a higher risk of overdose because fentanyl is being found in all kinds of drugs. For this reason, early intervention is more important now than ever before.
I am here to help
Hurt people hurt people, but healed people help people. I am here to prevent people from getting hurt and help heal those who are hurt so they can carry the message to others in need. If you want to learn more about my programs or would like a PDF copy of this article, please click the link below.