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There are plenty of reasons for not wanting to drink: You’ve got homework to do, you’re worried about getting in trouble, or maybe you just don’t feel like it. So when someone hands you a beer, why can it sometimes feel super awkward to say, “No thanks”?

Over half of high school students said choosing a nonalcoholic drink at a social gathering might mean being judged, according to a recent Student Health 101 survey. The question is: Are people really judging you, or are you just worried they might?

Believe it or not, most people don’t drink in high school. Sometimes it seems more common than it is because people talk it up or because we see it in the media, but research tells us that the number of teens who actually drink are a lot fewer than you think. Only a third of high school students said they drank alcohol in the past month, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Youth Risk Behavior survey.

Social pressures are often unspoken

In our survey, 53 percent of high schoolers said they’re confident turning down a drink they don’t want—and that’s great. But peer pressure more often occurs indirectly. Simply being in the presence of someone else drinking, for example, can make you more likely to join in. A body of research backs this up—if the people you want to be accepted by are drinking, it makes it easier to perceive drinking as a positive and socially acceptable experience. Additionally, teens may find it more difficult to control impulsive or risky behaviors when their friends are around, according to a review of studies published in Developmental Review.

Part of the pressure to follow the crowd is due to your basic biology. “At puberty, our brains develop in specific ways that make us care about our social standing more than ever before,” says Dr. Mitch Prinstein, distinguished professor and director of clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “We always feel the pressure to fit in, but before the age of 25, we have a hard time overcoming that pressure because the region of our brains that promotes inhibition is not fully developed,” he says. In other words, in high school, we have a supercharged drive to want to fit in—but our mental brakes haven’t fully developed.

So if you don’t want to drink, how do you resist without busting your social scene?

It’s all about confidence

“Being able to resist the pressure depends on the student’s power and ability to feel content with themselves,” says Patricia Saltzman, licensed social worker and substance abuse counselor in Connecticut, who works with teens. “Low self-esteem makes it a lot harder for [students] to stand up for themselves.”

The best way to feel good? Respecting your own boundaries. Being up front and honest is sometimes more respected than accepting a drink you don’t want. “Stand firm in your own values,” Dr. Prinstein says. “When we have high self-esteem, we have sources of self-assurance that come from places other than peer feedback,” such as your group of friends or your family. “It’s good for students and adults to know that it’s totally natural to want to feel liked and included,” he says. But that doesn’t mean someone’s opinion of you defines your sense of acceptance or self-worth.

It’s not easy to flick a switch and suddenly emit confidence. Insecurity can impair your choices, making it a lot harder to stand up for yourself. It’s perfectly fine to want to be liked, but the people who truly care about you will want what’s best for you. If you find yourself in a situation where friends ask you to do things you’re uncomfortable with, take a couple steps back and reevaluate your friendship. Do these people truly care about your well-being? Listen to your instincts, and think about spending more time with friends who will respect your boundaries and desires.

Here are 5 ways to tell someone you don’t want a drink without being awkward

friends laughing

1.

“Say you’re the designated driver for the night if you’re worried about being hassled.”

—Sydney, senior, Indianapolis, Indiana

How to say it

“Thanks, but I’m driving.”

How to hear it

“No worries, I hear you. Something else?”

2.

“Tell them you’ve had enough.”

—Kenlee, sophomore, Phillipsburg, Kansas

How to say it

“Thanks, but I’ve already got one.”

(Note: You can also respond by getting a drink yourself and making it without any alcohol.)

How to hear it

“Enjoy!”

3.

“[Say] you have an early morning.”

—Rebecca, Providence, Rhode Island

How to say it

“I’d love to, but I’m running a 5K in the AM and I’m trying to set a new personal record.”

How to hear it

“Oh, that’s awesome! I respect your willpower. How often do you train?”

4.

“Say you’d love a drink but would prefer starting off with something nonalcoholic.”

—Lindsay, Ontario, Canada

How to say it

“I really haven’t hydrated enough today. Would you have something without alcohol in it to start me off?”

How to hear it

“Absolutely! Water?”

5.

“Just give a firm, confident ‘no.’ You don’t need to give an excuse. It’s your body and you choose what to put into it.”

Karoline, junior, Wiggins, Mississippi

How to say it

“No thank you.”

How to hear it

“OK, cool.” 

“Your confident attitude will be contagious. Others who may not have the strength to say no may find it just [by] watching you. Be a leader!”
—Jeani, Redding, California

Keep it comical

“I found that incorporating a joke into the rejection lightens up the mood and saves you from feeling embarrassed.”
—Shania, senior, Milton, Massachusetts

Fake it

“Take the drink, but don’t drink it. Put it down on the table or floor, or ‘accidentally’ spill it or pour it out.”
—Niamh, senior, Boston, Massachusetts

“I would make my own drink and just not add any alcohol so that people don’t try and offer me another.”
—Alayna, Beaverton, Oregon

Don’t sugarcoat it

“Be clear about your choice not to drink. Be polite but firm.”
—Mehakpreet, Surrey, Canada 

Kill ’em with kindness

“As long as you have a good attitude about saying no and don’t seem disgusted, most people are OK with others not accepting a drink if you politely decline or make some good of the situation.”
—Emily, Ontario, Canada

Know your true friends

“The people who really matter won’t mind, and those who make a big deal about it aren’t people who have your best interest in mind.”
—Brianna, Ontario, Canada

How to respect other people’s decisions about drinking

If you’re the one handing red solo cups to everyone, take a moment to check in with yourself.

Keep these tips in mind:

  • Show support by letting up on your own drinking.
  • Let your friends know that not drinking won’t affect your relationship.
  • Apologize if you made your friend feel uncomfortable.
  • Suggest a different activity that doesn’t involve alcohol.
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Article sources

Jann Gumbiner, PhD, licensed psychologist and clinical professor at the University of California, Irvine College of Medicine, Irvine, California.

Mitch Prinstein, PhD, ABPP, John Van Seters distinguished professor and director of clinical psychology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Patricia Saltzman, licensed clinical social worker and substance abuse counselor, Child Guidance Community Clinic, Manchester, Connecticut.

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National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2016, January). Underage drinking. Retrieved from https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/UnderageDrinking/UnderageFact.htm

National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). (2012, March 2). Peers increase teen driving risk via heightened reward activity. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/news-events/nida-notes/2012/03/peers-increase-teen-driving-risk-heightened-reward-activity

Palmeri, J. M. (2011). Peer pressure and alcohol use amongst college students. Retrieved from https://steinhardt.nyu.edu/appsych/opus/issues/2011/fall/peer

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Sandahl, E. (2016, April 1). Do you drink? Exploring the reasons behind your choices. Student Health 101, 2(15). Retrieved from https://sh101academy.getsh101.com/do-you-drink/

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Student Health 101 survey, July 2016.

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