Parenting* is hard. If you are reading this, you are likely a very concerned parent who is looking for guidance about how to help your child who is using substances (or engaging in other risky behaviors). You may have mild concerns about your child’s focus at school, choice of friends, new “minimalist” communication style with you, or you may be facing sudden and terrifying changes. Whatever your particular mix of worries as a parent, your child’s drug use (including alcohol) tends to make it that much more nerve-racking—sometimes explosive.

*A note to grandparents, aunts, uncles, and foster and adoptive parents and other caregivers: please understand “parent” as a shorthand and feel no less welcome here.


The factors that go into the decision to use substances are complex for everyone, and teenagers and young adults are at a particular disadvantage because their brains are not yet fully developed. With an immature prefrontal cortex, it is normal for adolescents to struggle with impulsivity and decision making, and their notoriously fluctuating or “raging” hormones further destabilize the situation. The addition of mood altering substances at this stage of development is especially problematic as they directly impact teenagers’ brains which are growing and learning. These substances alter their moods and decisions, the way they feel, think, and act and to that end, what they learn about themselves and the world around them.

Many teens who decide to start using substances early also struggle with psychiatric problems like depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety problems, ADHD, conduct disorder, or early onset psychotic disorders. Many have learning disorders and academic problems, or impulse control problems that lead to relationship, legal, institutional, or authority problems. In addition, teens are particularly sensitive to peer dynamics (including making/ending friendships, sexual identity issues, bullying, etc.) and to stressful situations like their parents’ marital status or someone they’re close to dying. There’s a lot in the mix at this stage of life!


It’s complicated for you as well! If your child is struggling with a substance use problem, you face the reactions of school staff, police, other parents, and extended family members: often including judgment, misunderstanding, punishment, fear, and “help” that can feel overbearing and shake your confidence as a parent. And not least of all, cooperation and collaboration with your co- parent can be seriously tested under this stress.

But you can help. And we hope you keep reading.


There are variety of ways to help a loved one with a substance use problem. It is however, likely that you have not heard about them in spite of the evidence that they are enormously effective (as tested in rigorous research studies). Unfortunately, they have not been used widely in most treatment programs and have been completely neglected by the popular culture/media and they are why we wrote this guide! Because we want you to know about ALL of your options when it comes to helping your child.

Researchers and clinicians over the past 40 years have developed and tested these tools and made them available (we describe many of them in our book Beyond Addiction). One of the most powerful is something called Motivational Interviewing developed by Dr. Bill Miller. It turns out that when it comes to making changes in behavior, motivation matters a lot! And contrary to what you may have been told or assumed, you, as a parent, can actually play a big role in helping your child shift their motivation towards positive change. There are of course things you can do or say that push things in exactly the opposite direction from what you want (i.e., confrontation, the silent treatment, forcing change). This 20 Minute Guide will expose you to a variety of skills you can use to turn motivation on and sustain it.

The second set of tools is 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. 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! It 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.


Unlike other approaches, CRAFT teaches you how to stay involved in a positive, ongoing way, while also taking care of yourself. This guide will help you with such tools as:

• How to react when your child has been using substances and when he has NOT been using substances

• How to co-parent and collaborate as effectively and smoothly as possible

• Getting more of what you want to see from your child and less of what you don’t

• How to talk to your child so that you are more likely to be heard

• How to take care of yourself all along the way

For each topic, we explain why it’s important and how to use it to encourage change. We provide worksheets with examples to show you how CRAFT strategies look in action. We encourage you to use these worksheets to practice the skills as many times as you want or need. Feel free to skip around—it’s not necessary to go through the topics in order, but it is important to practice each one.

Last Things First:
It’s so important to practice that we want to emphasize it now, before we tell you what it is you’ll be practicing. Practice, practice, practice, and have patience with yourself as you do. Some or all of the following skills may be new to you. Some may be the opposite of what you have been trying to do (confronting, lecturing, punishing). Learning to do it differently requires practice and patience. You won’t get it right every time, and that’s okay, that’s part of the process. Give yourself room to make mistakes, and try not to get discouraged. Keep practicing – but don’t push yourself too hard. Try short stints each day and get some rest in between. In other words, try out these ideas for 20 minutes a day!

We hope this is the beginning of positive change for you and your family. We appreciate the effort it takes to be a force for good. Thank you, truly. Take care of yourself, communicate, learn the CRAFT behavioral strategies, practice—and trust that things will change. Forty years of research and all our clinical experience says they will.

Next Page: Helping with Understanding