Carrie Wilkens, PhD and Jarell Myers, PhD
If you are a parent (or another family member) who is worried about your teen’s use of substances, it’s highly likely that you want to help them change. You may have the impulse to ignore it and hope it goes away on its own. Or, you may start doling out consequences with the idea that any punishment is the way to go. However, there are other ideas that are significantly more powerful when it comes to influencing teens and young adults who are experimenting with or using substances.
To start, remember that one of the most important things you can bring to the table is your knowledge of and love for your teen. Last week we talked about the value this has in recognizing and understanding substance use, so today we'll discuss how it can be applied to positive reinforcement.
Where To Start?
People repeat actions that are either rewarding or reinforcing. So, your teen is using substances because it works for them somehow. Ask yourself: “what does my teen get from substances?” Do they use them to manage social anxiety, boredom, or attention problems? Do they use them to avoid emotional pain or insecurity?
If you understand the function substances have for your child, you can help them learn other skills they can turn toward to manage their feelings. Keep in mind however, that they may not know how to cope with difficult feelings, how to act in a given situation, or how to problem-solve or set goals for themself. While it may seem like they should be able to “just manage life without drugs or alcohol,” your teen will need your attention, support, and guidance with learning how to do this.
Once you have identified the function substances have for your teen, then you can begin to support other constructive behaviors that ‘compete’ with their substance-using ones. As you do this, you can combine positive reinforcement with structure and guidance to set limits and enforce consequences.
This is where our three tools come in.
Providing structure and guidance: Be clear about your family values and rules: “I want you to always be sober if you are driving. You must call me if you are altered in any way, for whatever reason, and I will come get you.” Adding structure to your child’s life (“You can have the car Friday night if you agree to take a breathalyzer test before you leave and after you get home”) sets them up to engage positively with your family’s rules. You can further encourage this by tracking and rewarding their follow-through. Make sure you notice and appreciate when your teen adheres to the rules you set, just as much as you notice when they don’t. Your constant positive reinforcement will help them feel loved, even if they're not able to quit their substance addiction immediately.
Problem solve together: If your teen engages with their addiction due to social pressure or their anxiety, discuss ways to resolve those anxieties together. Role play saying no to friends, practice calming exercises, and set up external support systems to help your teen with their anxiety. The more they feel capable of facing whatever they are using substances to avoid, the more ready they'll be to be substance free.
Setting limits and enforcing consequences: Firm, respectful limits, that are both physical and emotional, are important for everyone. Reinforce behaviors that are consistent with your family’s boundaries and identify consequences for when they are overstepped before hand. Agree reasonable, timely consequences that will be enforced when they break the rules. For example, “When you take money from me for something we didn't agree on, you'll be responsible for paying back the amount with interest.” It's best to co-create this list of consequences together with your teen.
Boosting Your Effectiveness
During their teenage and young adult years, your child will still be learning things like who to rely on, how to engage with people, and how to act in ways that align with their values. They will have significantly more capacity to learn these things if they have a strong sense of reliability in their relationship with you. When your words (“you can hang out with your friends on Saturday if you come with me to yoga instead of smoking after school”) accurately correlate to your actions (taking the time to drive them to yoga and then to their friend’s house), your child will come to see you as a source of stability in their life.
On a similar note, the things that provide structure - like routines, rules, and your reactions - should, for the most part, stay the same. If you set a limit with your teen and laid out certain consequences, do your very best to stick to them, even if your teen’s behavior is erratic or unpredictable.
In addition, make sure to set limits that you have a capacity to track and follow up on. If you set a limit but don’t notice when they have been crossed (your child comes home high, but you are asleep and don’t notice), it sends the message that you aren’t paying attention or aren’t committed to your shared goals. Remember, your teen will not be the reliable element in this process! They are still learning what changing their behaviors looks like, and will likely have mixed feelings along the way.
It is normal for your teen to be ambivalent about changing their relationship with substances. This doesn’t mean that they’re “in denial” or don’t want to change - they are simply working through conflicting emotions and desires. The best things you can do are to stay consistent through your actions and your words, use positive reinforcement to shape the behaviors you want to see more of, and set limits and consequences to reduce substance using behavior.
This post was written by Carrie Wilkens and Jarell Myers from CMC: Foundation for Change. Carrie Wilkens, PhD, is the Co-Founder and Clinical Director of the Center for Motivation and Change in NYC and in the Berkshires and the Co-Founder, Co-Executive Director and President of CMC: Foundation for Change. She has co-authored an award-winning book, Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change and has also contributed to The 20 Minute Guide: A Guide for Parents about How to Help their Child Change their Substance Use.
Jarell Myers, PhD is a trainer at CMC: Foundation for Change and works as a psychologist at CMC and CMC:FFC. He earned his doctorate from Fairleigh Dickinson University and completed an APA-accredited internship at Mt Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital. He has expertise working with adolescents and young adults with substance use disorders.