How to Help Your Child Who Is Struggling with an Alcohol or Drug Problem

Practical recommendations for how you can approach and cope with addiction in your family.

minute read

If you’re a parent of a child who is facing addiction, you might relate with a range of emotions. Parents can feel a combination of:

  • Fear
  • Sadness
  • Shame

Take hope! There are many answers, many paths, and many ways to help your child cope with – and change – a relationship to substances. The answer for your child will depend on the dynamics of your family as a whole and your child as a unique individual. Your treatment options for teenagers and young adults are wide and varied. Treatment suggestions will depend on:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • What sorts of other mental health problems are present, such as depression
  • How the behavior has been going on
  • Who her friends are and what they think about substances

….and about a hundred other things. One size does not fit all!

Addiction Treatment is Evolving

Thinking has changed!

In the past decade, breakthroughs in research and the scientific community have revolutionized the understanding of substance use disorders. For example, severe substance use disorders, commonly known as addictions, were viewed as moral failings. Today, addictions are understood to be a complex interplay between a person’s genes and their environment. Further, a substance use disorders is treated as a medical condition, using evidence based treatments based on:

1. Medications
2. Talk therapy
3. A combination of the two

Today, a new paradigm is gradually replacing the medical disease model. “The Disease Model” is a theory put forward by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs. The main tenet of “The Disease Model” is that substance users cannot use alcohol or drugs moderately; complete abstinence is the only way to recovery from addiction in this view. However, there are alternatives to this theory.

For example, the Harm Reduction approach directly addresses some of the failings of the universal disease model approach. It allows for treatment of anyone who wants it, regardless of what stage their use is at, and it allows for a range of goals in treatment, where abstinence is viewed as just one. In other words, reducing drinking could be a favorable treatment outcome in this view, rather than eliminating drinking. You can find more about Harm Reduction at:

How to Approach Your Child

So, knowing that there are a range of options…what next?

What is of most importance is your communication and understanding. This is not the time to go into panic mode. Avoid chastising or lecturing, as this falls on deaf ears. It is understandable that you may feel frustrated, overwhelmed and helpless in the face of an addiction. These are normal emotional responses when you care for and love your child. As hard as it is, stay calm!

The most common mistake parents can make is trying to force ideas and values on the defiant teenage mind. However, what parents need to do when approaching their child is meet them half way. That means trying to understand the situation from your child’s perspective. Teenagers will probably come up with some very wrong reasoning and some seriously flawed ideas. But they also have a NEED to be heard and respected.

So, try to have an open and non-threatening discussion with them. You can establish rules of engagement with your teen and agree that both of you are allowed to express ideas and opinions without fear of retribution. The key is to remember is that you need to remain in control: of yourself and of the conversation. Remember that your teenager will want to see things only from their perspective.

Begin to Listen

In all my years working in the treatment field with adolescents, one of the biggest complaints I always hear is:

“My parents don’t listen to me! They only yell at me and tell me what to do.
They never listen to what I have to say.”

When a teenager is using alcohol/drugs, and you’re yelling, lecturing, blaming them or their friends, or giving them the silent treatment, these are mistakes. You are not alone if you have tried these techniques. However, they are very ineffective and must be abandoned. Reactions like confrontation or trying to force change actually push things in exactly the opposite direction. Your child will become very defensive, argumentative and deny that there is a problem. Trust within the family disappears.

So, how can you avoid the trap of self-righteousness? Whether your child has begun to experiment with drugs and/or alcohol or has a full-blown substance use disorder it is most helpful to stay focused and focus on positive communication with them while discouraging their substance use. Everything comes down to your approach and tone of voice when helping someone. But you must also learn to listen. What your child has to say will give you insight and clues to a better understanding of their behavior.

Again, the most negative and destructive thing you can do as a parent is to focus on what your child is doing wrong. Positive reinforcement is the most effective strategy to motivate change in behavior. It is very helpful to see the positive things they are doing and reward them with comments that are constructive. This motivate teens to change the negative part of their behavior.

Part of this strategy includes helping them find work that is rewarding to build their self-esteem. For example, let them know when they are doing a good job around the home. Ask them about what is important to them? How can lead a healthy lifestyle together? Can you share time going to the gym, hiking, walking, biking? The point is…open up to listening. You are not the only person whose opinion matters.

Understanding the “Why”

It is most helpful for family members and loved ones to get a better understanding of what may be the driving force behind their child’s substance use/dependency. As it could be:

  • Boredom
  • Curiosity
  • Insecurity
  • Lack of self-esteem
  • Not being a part of or feeling left out
  • Thrill seeking behavior
  • Wanting to fit in with peers

Understanding the “Why” behind your child’s drug or alcohol use can foster empathy and also help you think about ways to encourage healthier behaviors that compete with his or her substance use/dependency.

Pour Out Love and Attention Tied to Positive Action

There is nothing more important than letting a person struggling with a drug or alcohol problem know they are loved, cared for, and an important part of the family. Do not be afraid to take your child out to a restaurant, a sporting event, or treat her to a manicure. But tie these events to positive behavior. Show them that positive behavior has its rewards and benefits.

It is natural that we want what is best for our child and to protect them. However, it is most important that they learn that there are consequences to their behaviors. As it is our experiences in life that are our greatest teacher, when we feel the consequences that come about when we make the wrong decisions, and the positiveness of making the right ones. But you don’t need to walk this road alone! You can also benefit from professional, clinical guidance.

Look Into CRAFT

I suggest that you check out a set of tools called CRAFT (Community Reinforcement and Family Training) developed by Dr. Robert Meyers at the University of New Mexico. The CRAFT approach helps you think about the problem you face through a new behavioral perspective. Further, the CRAFT method relies on non-confrontational methods to encourage loved ones to enter addiction treatment. It includes specific skills that will help you reinforce positive changes, communicate more effectively, and let consequences play a role, all while taking better care of yourself!

CRAFT is the leading research-supported way for families to help their substance using loved ones. Compared to families trained to do interventions or who attend Al-Anon, family members who are trained in CRAFT are more likely to see their loved one’s willingness to get help increase ,and substance use decrease or stop all together. In CRAFT, the concerned family member (that’s you!) also feels better.

The CRAFT program teaches families how to impact their loved one while avoiding both detachment and confrontation, the respective strategies of Al-Anon (a 12-Step based approach) and traditional (Johnson Institute-style) interventions in which the substance user is confronted by family members and friends during a surprise meeting. So, should you opt for the confrontation or community intervention approach? While all three approaches have been found to improve family members’ well-being, CRAFT has proven to be significantly more effective in engaging loved ones in treatment and decreasing their substance use, in comparison to the Johnson Institute Intervention or Al-Anon/Nar-Anon facilitation therapy. For more information, click Here.

Focus on You!

Never forget that as a parent/loved one, the importance of your own self-care is crucial! You’ll need the strength to be patient, show understanding and not lose control in a situation that is stressful.

Love is what we are. Love cures all. But please remember, when it comes to addiction, the mind has been polluted, distorted, and in a fog. It takes time, sometimes years, to clear the cobwebs so an individual can see their life clearly. Recovery is a process that they must move through, at their own pace!

Allow your loved one time to change and grow, and become a unique individual in their own right; or, rather, to return to their authentic selves.

“The path of recovery that an individual walks is neither predetermined nor clear-cut.
It is a force in the process of working day by day, listening deeply within
your own heart.” – David E. McCauley

About the author
Melanie Solomon is the author of AA-Not the Only Way; Your One Stop Resource Guide to 12-Step Alternatives 2nd Ed. A full-time writer and lecturer, she has taught at the Huntington Beach School District's Drug and Alcohol Program and The learning Annex in California. For the past five years, Melanie has also been providing personal coaching for those with alcohol and drug problems, where she helps clients find the treatment plan that is the best match for their particular situation.
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