If your child is using drugs or alcohol, it’s unlikely that they are simply being a “bad kid” or trying to drive you crazy (although it feels like it). His behavior (in this case, substance use) is rewarding in some way – emotionally, physically, socially, perhaps all of the above. In psychology we call this “reinforcement,” and it applies to motivation and change in all of us. People take action — work hard at a job, study for a test, smoke pot — and repeat that action because they get something from doing it. Getting a raise, doing well on a test, or being the life of the party is the reward or “reinforcer” for the action, the reason they keep doing it. Generally, people do not persist in a behavior (for very long) unless it affords some benefit.


Feeling relaxed, exhilarated, less anxious, braver, funnier, and part of the group, are all potential benefits of using substances. If there were no benefits, there would be no use. This is important because knowing what, in particular, your child gets from using substances provides clues about what could happen instead. For example, if you think that your child is drinking in part because it helps him take a break from his hectic school schedule, you can come up with other, healthy ways he might be able to get those breaks. You might decide to schedule “homework-free” time or relax some of the pressure you notice he’s feeling at home.

Understanding what your child gets from using can also lower your fear and anxiety, as it makes the behavior less random and more predictable. If he uses to fit in with other kids, then you know he’s more at risk when he’s out socializing than home with the family. Knowing this won’t eliminate your anxiety completely, but it can reduce it. And as you learn CRAFT strategies, you will be equipped to intervene constructively to influence the patterns.

Finally, understanding your child’s reinforcers will help you empathize with him. Why would you want to empathize with such destructive behavior? It will help you take it less personally (as in, “How can he do this to us?!”), and feel less angry and more connected, which will give you energy for helping him change. Instead of thinking he is irresponsible or torturing you, you can see the underlying loneliness, insecurity, depression, or boredom, which are all things you can help your child address. In turn, and even more important, understanding your child’s behavior instead of just being upset about it can help him feel understood, which will make him more likely to collaborate on a plan for change.

Next Page: Warning! Ambivalence is Normal!