Commentary: Empowering Parents in the Fight Against Addiction

Commentary- Empowering Parents in the Fight Against Addiction- Join Together News Service from the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids

More than 80% of adolescents identify their parents as one of the most important influences in their lives. It may be hard to believe that statement especially if you are parenting an adolescent who may be using drugs or alcohol. But did you know that if a teen learns about the risks from his or her friends or “on the street” rather than from parents, then that teen is more likely to engage in substance use?[1] Parents truly play a vital role in their child’s behavior. Understanding such behavior is as important as learning how to talk to them appropriately about drug or alcohol use. We are going to address both in this blog.

It’s important to first have a little more insight into your child’s brain. Our brains develop somewhat unevenly, from back to front and the parts that develop first are those which control physical coordination, emotion and motivation. During adolescence these parts of the brain are fully developed. The part of the brain that controls reasoning and impulses is near the front of the brain, which therefore, develops last. In fact, this part of the brain does not fully mature until age 25. As you can imagine, an individual that has not yet developed control of reasoning and impulses may show some of the following characteristics:

  • difficulty holding back or controlling emotions;
  • a preference for physical activity;
  • a preference for high excitement and low effort activities;
  • poor planning and judgement (rarely thinking of negative consequences);
  • more risky, impulsive behaviors, including experimenting with drugs and alcohol.

Because the development of the adolescent brain is so closely linked to behavior, it’s no surprise that adolescence is a time of great risk taking – and for many that risk-taking includes experimenting with substance use. The earlier that experimentation with drugs or alcohol begins, the greater the risk that addiction will develop. In fact, for every ten kids who try drugs before age 22, one of them will become addicted.[2] 

There are some good resources out there to inform parents about the signs of use, abuse and emerging addiction including, “You Think Your Child is Using,” or “You Know Your Child is Using.” And being informed is critical.

While things like genes, peers, the mass media, schools, neighborhoods and other cultural influences play important roles in shaping adolescent substance use patterns, parents can also play a critical and enduring role.[3] Parents can not only play a vital role in preventing substance use, but also in intervening upon emerging substance use problems in their children.

There is no one who has a better sense of their kid than a parent – and research has clearly shown that the earlier the problem is intervened upon, the better the outcomes.

So let’s consider a highly effective and well-researched approach that works – it’s called CRAFT (Community Reinforcement and Family Training) and it has been around for more than 20 years.

It’s a method to help family members engage a treatment-refusing loved one into treatment. It was developed with the belief that since family members know each other very well, and can and do make important contributions in each other’s lives, a caring family member can be shown how to use that power to nudge a loved one who is in denial toward treatment.

CRAFT teaches family members to communicate more effectively – without blame or berating. And when applied to parent/adolescent relationships, it can help parents learn effective ways to support and interact with their kids – whether they are in the early stages of use, need to go to treatment, or are somewhere between these extremes. It can improve relationships between parents and their adolescents or young adults; reduce problem behaviors; and help parents facilitate treatment entry of their child and support them during treatment and recovery.

We know that CRAFT works. We know that parents CAN make a huge difference in helping their kids navigate substance use issues. By learning how to approach the problems systematically, parents can help to prevent and intervene upon emerging substance use problems in their children. But the problem with CRAFT isn’t one of efficacy. It has been one of availability. Trained and certified CRAFT therapists simply aren’t available in every community. Parents who are dealing with a child with a substance use problem are busy, often also managing jobs and other children.

We wanted to make CRAFT as accessible, and as user-friendly as possible, so we teamed up with Cadence Online to bring the CRAFT method to life through an online course for parents. With brief, engaging videos and extensive role-playing exercises, parents can navigate through five key modules designed to help them understand their child’s drug use pattern, improve their communication skills, develop methods of behavior management, and learn when and how to suggest treatment entry.

We are incredibly proud that this is now available to parents across the globe so that they have the tools to effectively interact with their child around substance use issues. As the country faces an epidemic of addiction and drug overdose deaths, we are seeing kids dying at alarming rates. These kids are not all addicted – in fact – kids who are “inexperienced” users will more often die of a drug overdose. Their bodies simply have not developed a tolerance for the often lethal effects of the drugs, or they mix them with alcohol or other drugs and the combination is fatal.

As parents, there may be no greater danger for our adolescents today. As experienced addiction and behavioral science researchers, we are alarmed by the threat facing this generation. But we are also encouraged because science has shown that there are effective ways to prevent, intervene and treat addiction. We need to do more to put these tools into the hands of parents. Parents are their kids’ best line of defense.

Robert Meyers, PhD, creator of CRAFT and Professor Emeritus Psychology, University of New Mexico – Center on Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Addiction 

Kimberly Kirby, PhD, Director, Parent’s Translational Research Center, Treatment Research Institute and Rowan University

[1] 2013 Partnership Attitude Tracking Study:

[2] Paving the Way to Change:

[3] Dick, et al., 2007: