Why Just Say No Typically Doesn’t Work

Why Just Say No Typically Doesn’t Work

Just Say No is a well-intended message and prevention effort. Unfortunately, it typically does not work with young people due to four key problems with the message. But, thanks to new imaging technologies of the past 10-15 years and the intensive, extensive studies of the live human brain in action, over time, under the influence, with mental illness, after treatment, with medications and under development that is now possible, recent research and study findings are helping to explain these problems. These findings are also helping us better understand what can be done differently to influence a young person’s decision to drink or use drugs.

What’s wrong with the “Just Say No” approach?

Problem number One has to do with the way the brain develops. Because the part of the brain an adolescent needs in order to make the decision to just say no when confronted with the choice has often not started, let alone finished, developing, a young person’s brain relies on the part of the brain that has developed. And that is the part that instinctively wires with the onset of puberty to push the species to take risks and turn to one’s peers. That portion of the brain is on full speed ahead starting at about age 12.  Unfortunately, the part of the brain that serves as the breaks on this risk-taking behavior and that can logically reason through complex decisions, such as what could wrong and why should one wait until 21, typically doesn’t even start to develop until around age 16. It typically takes until one’s early 20’s to complete. For these brain developmental reasons, alcohol does not work the same way in the adolescent brain as it does in the brain of an adult.

It’s Time We Tell The Whole Truth About Puberty

“Underage Drinking – How Teens Can Become Alcoholics Before Age 21”


There are four key problems with the “Just Say No Message” that explain why it typically does not work.

Problem number two has to do with adolescents watching the drinking or drug use patterns of their peers, older siblings, parents, grandparents, neighbors – even the adult delivering the “Just Say No” message. These individuals may be drinking and/or doing drugs with no apparent problem (at least as far as a teen is concerned) or they may be abusing a substance, themselves. So the teen does not see the harm. The same is true of the old message in the image to the right, “Your Brain On Drugs.” New science demonstrates the brain’s plasticity, showing brain cells can heal and re-wire when brain health is restored (nutrition, exercise, sleep, mindfulness, help with stress or mental health issues, stopping substance abuse…, as examples).

“A Different Kind of Conversation About Underage Drinking”

5 Things Parents Should Consider to Keep the Message Clear

“Here’s to Neural Networks and Neurotransmitters: Keys to Brain (and Therefore Emotional) Health”

“The Brain Can Change When Substance Abuse is Stopped”

Problem number three has to do with not telling teens the whole story because let’s face it, teens want the “Why.” (Don’t we all!)  To tell the whole story, we must change the message to be more along the lines of, “Understand why it’s important not to abuse alcohol or drugs while your brain is developing from ages 12 – 21, understand how alcohol and drugs work in the brain and why they are so compelling to the brain brain under 21, and understand how brain development from ages 12-15, especially, will influence (or not) your decision-making capabilities.” This sort of message I’ve found resonates with teens, and as importantly, with their parents. Because let’s face it, many parents condone drinking (and sometimes drug use) – if not outright, then with a “wink-wink” – as a right of passage, something they did themselves as a teen and look how well they turned out, or something all teens do. The problem with these beliefs is that early drug or alcohol misuse may not work for their child’s brain.

“Five Things To Know About Adolescents’ Brain Development and [Substance] Use

Want to Get Through to Teens | Talk To Their Brains

“Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: the Science of Addiction”

Secondhand drinking is what happens to friends of friends who drink too much.

Secondhand drinking is what happens to friends of friends who drink too much.

And problem number four – SECONDHAND DRINKING. A key reason to say, “No,” to getting drunk or taking drugs is the brain changes they cause. These brain changes result in drinking or drugging behaviors, which in turn cause secondhand drinking impacts for others. Secondhand drinking is the worry and anxiety a BFF experiences when she has to track on her drunk friend every Friday and Saturday night to make sure she doesn’t wander off with some guy or climb in a car with a drunk driver or repeatedly fend off her drunk friend’s inane, circular, sarcastic, argumentative, mean-spirited verbal assaults. It’s what happens to the young driver who’s always the DD (designated driver) and spends his/her evenings trying to keep friends from puking in his/her car, being rowdy in the back seat, insisting on music changes while he/she’s trying to navigate traffic or losing his/her license or going to jail for his/her friend’s open container when pulled over for a DUI check point. Secondhand drinking is the deep pain and guilt friends of a teen, whom everyone knew had a drinking or drug problem, feel when that friend dies of an overdose or experiences a serious, life-changing accident, date rape, unwanted pregnancy…., because none of them knew enough about how alcohol or drugs work in the brain, of what a friend can (and should) do in order to get their friend the help they need, of the seriousness of a young person’s drinking or drug misuse problem.

Youth Alcohol Abuse Prevention Programs From a Different Angle | 21st Century Brain Research and SECONDHAND DRINKING

Secondhand Drinking Prevention

It’s time we re-think the “Just Say No” message and revise it to address these four key problems, because let’s face it, if the message worked, there would be no (or at least far fewer) teen drug and alcohol problems.


If you would like me to talk to your students, conduct an “in-service” training for teachers and administrators, address parents of a student population or assist with re-framing your substance abuse prevention programs, please consider one of my presentations and/or consulting programs. These programs are adjusted to meet elementary school audiences, as well.

©2013 Lisa Frederiksen. All Rights Reserved.

Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at BreakingTheCycles.com
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of BreakingTheCycles.com. She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.

44 Responses to Why Just Say No Typically Doesn’t Work

  1. Great message Lisa. Yes clearly that ‘Just Say No’ slogan has not worked really well, though it was of course well intended. You are so right about the education piece for both the kids and adults. The more we all know, the better off we are – and I don’t think the information that you present here is widely dispersed and understood – yet!! With your help, someday it will be. Thank you!

  2. It’s true, Lisa, the ‘Just Say No’ does not work. Thanks for presenting alternatives.

  3. Super article, Lisa. One thing I’ve seen over & over: children try to grow up too fast. And you know what else? Parents kinda fall into that trap too. Like, a tiny bit of pride when they do the “grown-up” things. Dr Phil said once on his show that we should not be expecting 12 year olds to make decisions like 16 year olds… Boing! True. The boundaries we give our children should be age appropriate and when those boundaries are too wide, they get into trouble. It begins with things like, dressing 5 year olds like they’re 15. This issue has so many things attached to it, it is not just one thing. And… it begins when they are small. It is way better to raise up a well-rounded child than to try to fix a broken adult. We would do well to take this to heart… <3

  4. Clearly the message needs to be so much more hard hitting than ‘Just say No’. Prevention is the key and this depends on accurate information. Thank you for always sharing such up-to-date and important research Lisa.

  5. Tom Holmberg says:

    Really interesting points Lisa, growing up in the 80’s I clearly remember these commercials. I remember as a grad school kid they didn’t make sense in the real world.

  6. I agree Lisa. As role models to younger people, adults must exhibit the qualities of love, forgiveness, compassion, trust, self-discipline, moderation, integrity, and right guidance. To me, these qualities help to provide a loving and supportive environment that the child perceives as safe and nurturing. Thank you for your article about better messaging for behavior change.

  7. Hi Lisa,

    Such a great reminder here that we need to update our messages and do the research to find out what really works. The Just Say No message did not accomplish the goal that was intended. As we all know, we have as much or more of an addiction issue in our society now than when the message first came out.

  8. Sherie says:

    Excellent post, Lisa, and love the new site header, by the way! It is such shame that the “Just Say NO” campaign didn’t work out as well as hoped. Your points really outline why it didn’t though…and awareness is the first step to a solution. The research you shared on brain development in youth is particularly hard hitting. Well done.

    • Thanks, Sherie (and I’m glad you like the new header – Elizabeth Maness did it :)). Let’s hope this new research can help with re-framing youth prevention programs. I appreciate your comment!

  9. Lisa McMahon says:

    Number 4 particularly resonated with me. I wasn’t’ tempted to abuse drugs/alcohol because I saw its negative effects on family and friends.

    • I’m glad that one resonated – it sure does with me, as well. When a person grapples with secondhand drinking repeatedly, it actually changes their neural network wiring due to the chronic activation of the fight-or-flight stress response system – this can cause them serious emotional and physical health complications, as well as to wire in coping skills that treat unacceptable behaviors as somehow acceptable…. It’s all so inter-twined. Thanks for your comment!

  10. Joanne says:

    What has worked for us is having ongoing discussions with our kids, from when they were younger. But not where it was a planned-ahead sit down type of conversation. Keeping it casual and in the moment. The main thing that we do, is encouraging our kids to speak their mind and raising them with self esteem – even when it means they disagree with us.

  11. Lisa,
    You are so spot on. Just Say No doesnt work. I agree with all your points.

  12. Pat Moon says:

    Great points about the ‘just say “no”‘ program. I had not thought about the fact that a teen’s brain is just not developed or matured enough to fully comprehend the impacts of drinking or drugs. I agree, the program needs to include your 4 points. Thanks for sharing.

  13. The just say no is a fantastic campaign. I’d really love to see it partnered with a total ban on alcohol advertizing on television, the way they did with cigarettes. Alcohol does just as much damage and probably kills more people when you add in the drunk drivers. I’d love to see it banned from sport as well but probably won’t in my lifetime.

  14. Jody Lamb says:

    Hi Lisa,

    Oh, goodness. Thanks for this. As a kid and a teen, I remember watching the Just Say No commercials and picturing classic Heroin addicts. “I sure hope the hardcore drug addict-types watch this before they try Heroin or crack so that this doesn’t happen to them,” I’d think. There was a complete disconnect with that in my brain about teenage drug use that I witnessed – marajuana, alcohol – and “hardcore” drugs. I DEFINITELY didn’t see alcohol as a drug, though I saw the destructive effects of alcoholism in my family daily.

    I agree with all of your points.

    “Unfortunately, the part of the brain that serves as the breaks on this risk-taking behavior and that can logically reason through complex decisions, such as what could wrong and why should one wait until 21, typically doesn’t even start to develop until around age 16. It typically takes until one’s early 20?s to complete.” – I have thought about this for years. So, how does one satisfy that sense of risk taking and adventure? There has to be a societal shift. What can compete with partying with drugs and alcohol? What has a coolness level that matches. There are many athletes and celebrities who live clean and live large – with altheticism, creative arts and outdoor adventures. Why can’t we start a movement with them – to make it a new kind of cool.

    Thank you for this!

    • Hi Jody – you are spot on with this, “So, how does one satisfy that sense of risk taking and adventure? There has to be a societal shift. What can compete with partying with drugs and alcohol? What has a coolness level that matches. There are many athletes and celebrities who live clean and live large – with altheticism, creative arts and outdoor adventures. Why can’t we start a movement with them – to make it a new kind of cool.” An example of this in my area is a youth center that has indoor soccer fields, indoor basketball courts, pool tables, food, games, music – all sorts of activities – and it’s within walking distance of the young people who need it. In that same complex is also a substance abuse professional / counselor, Sheriff’s Activities League personnel and academic tutoring – incredibly important support services for youth. Teens need their friends and they need something that satisfies that adventure / risk taking piece – now that we understand the science of this, it will take societal shifts as you’ve described and communities pulling together to make it happen. Thanks for your comment!

  15. Herby Bell says:


    As usual you leave me with, “just say know.” Thanks for more clarity in understanding early brain development and upholding the dignity of our youth. Time to lose the wink-wink, double standard thing altogether. And holy cow, how DID we make it through the 80’s? Another valuable post and thank you.

  16. MamaRed says:

    Lisa (as always!) great points shared in a way that helps us all understand the why of things. As a parent of a young man who was endlessly curious and asked why all the time, it is important to help kids understand the long term results of their actions.

  17. These are really fascinating points about the “Just Say no” campaign. I remember having Dare in elementary school when they introduced this campaign and so many people went against the grain because this made them more curious to experiment. Thanks for the info:)

  18. Liz Bigger says:

    Lisa, This is such great info! They are doing so much in the study of the brain. What do you recommend we do with kids in their teens – are we giving them too much leeway and too much freedom to make the right decisions when they can’t? Again! great info!!!

    • It’s an explosion of new research and information and it’s doing wonders for helping us determine what we can do to prevent, intervene and treat addiction and secondhand drinking. Boy – as for what I recommend, that’ll have to be another post, I’m afraid – thanks for asking, though, and thanks for your comment!

  19. Great post Lisa! I think that the “Just Say No” idea had good intentions however, as I was reading your article I was thinking about how often, as a hypnotherapist, I say to clients that the subconscious mind does not get what the word NO (or don’t) is (as in “don’t think of a pink elephant”). So it totally makes sense that other alternatives need to be explored.

  20. Robin Strohmaier says:

    Lisa, what a great article and message, Lisa. I hadn’t looked at it this way and I appreciate your insights. Thank you for explaining it so clearly and for getting the word out. I admire your dedication and commitment to this.

  21. Sharon O'Day says:

    That phrase feels like it represented a simpler time, when less was known. But, sadly, it was no more effective then than it is today! Thanks to you, Lisa, I’m so much more aware of the subtleties of addictions … and the effect on and from the brain.

    • I agree, Sharon, and I can see how it was viewed to make sense given what we didn’t know at the time. I appreciate your compliment and am happy to hear these posts are helping to raise awareness.

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