When your son or daughter attends treatment for a substance use disorder, among other things, they’ll learn many techniques to maintain abstinence, and to make more pro-healthy choices. While individual therapy and group counseling are well-known techniques used to address substance use, it can be just as important that treatment includes life skills training.
Often in the throes of substance use, young people don’t learn the basic skills to manage life such as how to manage time, interview for a job, manage money, etc. These skills are vital to a healthy and successful life, and can help those in recovery to continue to improve their quality of life once treatment has ended. They are key to good mental and emotional health, physical health, a successful professional and social life and better decision-making.
The skills offered will vary and depend greatly on the type of treatment program and length of treatment. In an outpatient or short-term residential program setting, there may be fewer and less in-depth training opportunities available. However, within long-term programs, in which staff will have more time with patients, life skills might be more expansive. Some programs may even ask participants to complete test(s) so that they can target training to the specific needs of the individual.
Depending upon what was offered during formal treatment, you may find that you will have to help your child learn these skills. In some cases, baby steps and lots of practice are needed, so patience is key. The following skills may benefit your son or daughter as they develop a healthier lifestyle.
The overarching life skill in recovery is practicing self-care. Indeed, the rest of this list of life skills are all elements of practicing self-care. The media sometimes presents self-care as luxurious and exclusive, and the phrase may conjure images of massages, yoga retreats and beaches. However, at its heart, self-care is really just about looking after yourself in whatever way works for you. For your son or daughter in recovery, it could be as simple as personal hygiene, a clean living space and listening to his or her favorite music every day. It’s about addressing those urges to use substances in the first place and replacing them with something that’s going to be far more helpful and healthy to manage stress and other negative emotions.
One of the most important aspects of recovery is learning to keep oneself mentally and physically healthy. Substance use can be damaging to the body, and may be co-occurring with other mental health issues. Therefore, it is vital that your child learn healthy behaviors, as attending to personal hygiene, exercising, eating nutritious food and getting good sleep. This may include teaching a young person how to shop for groceries, cook and clean-up afterwards or understanding how to use the washing machine to do a load of clothes. Ensuring that other medical and dental problems are addressed is also important. A complete physical may be a good place to start if they haven’t had one in the past year.
Many people with substance use issues struggle with time management. Individual routines may have focused on arranging to get substances, consuming them and recovering from their use, rather than attending to work, school, household and other commitments. As your child builds his or her recovery lifestyle, establishing structure for each day is important not only to strengthen time management skills, but to avoid boredom and isolation, which can be triggers for substance use.
It can help to have an old-fashioned daily calendar where each hour of the day is structured to the best of one’s ability. It may include support group meetings, exercise, meditation time, chores, therapy and other doctor appointments, work, school, etc. Apps like Remember the Milk and Focus Booster can help with time management as well.
Structure is an important component to keeping those healthy, timely habits on track. Completing your tasks at more or less the same time every day takes the decision-making and stress out of the process, so your child can be more ‘automatic’ with his or her good habits. Routines are also great for attending the same support group or therapy session week to week. It doesn’t mean there can’t be room for flexibility, of course, but consistency makes it easier for your son or daughter to focus on the things they really want to (and need to) do for themselves to help maintain recovery.
For young adults especially, a key element of recovery may be finding employment. This can be difficult for young people who have experienced a substance use disorder, as they may have missed out on education, struggled at work or not worked for a period of time. Legal issues can also complicate matters.
Your son or daughter may need help developing a resume, identifying where to look for jobs and learning how to submit applications. They need to be prepared to address any gaps in their resume both in writing and when interviewing. Treatment programs may offer some form of educational or vocational support to help those seeking employment. If not, it may be worth talking to a career counselor or checking into online programs such as Take Hold of Your Future.
In some cases, young people who have a job and plan to return to work may find the stress is too much. Cutting back on hours in order to focus on recovery or changing jobs altogether may be necessary.
Increasing independence and employment comes financial responsibility. Young people with a substance use disorder, though, may not have learned effective financial skills, and may have spent a lot of money when they misused substances. Financial management training — which can include things like living within your means, opening a bank account, learning to save money, managing a credit card and paying off debt — can help your child transition to a more positive and stable lifestyle.
For some people, money and/or the ATM are triggers. If this is true for your child, it will be important to discuss how money will be managed. Some parents manage money for a period of time until their child is ready. This may entail limiting cash, asking for receipts or using a credit card that doesn’t permit substance use expenditures.
Your child’s social circle pre-recovery likely consisted of people he or she used substances with, which makes it important to find or reconnect with others who are healthier. This can be a real challenge, especially if your child has social anxiety. One of our parent coaches said that her son lamented that the only way he knew how to make a friend was to ask a new person if they wanted to smoke a joint. Social skill-building can improve self-esteem and deepen your child’s ability to feel more secure about their place in the world, and build a support system and community to help sustain their recovery. Finding ways to connect with others through sports, hobbies, work or classes and leveraging support groups where after-meeting activities may be offered may help your child. Individual counseling can also be helpful in terms of skill building.
Especially in the case of co-occurring mental health disorders or medication-assisted treatment for alcohol and opioid use disorders, managing one’s own medications is essential to a smooth recovery. Keeping appointments with the prescriber, securing medications, taking medications as prescribed and getting refills as needed before running out will help your child maintain a safe and responsible relationship with medications. Some young people use phone apps to remind themselves to take their meds while others find it useful to use a daily pill box.
Many young people use substances to deal with or escape from their emotions, so in recovery it’s important to learn to manage them without simply trying to mask the symptoms. Learning self-control techniques for emotions, such as understanding how to identify and name emotions when they happen, breathing and other self-soothing techniques or meditating, can be one of the most important life skills to ensure health and happiness in recovery.
Just like the other areas mentioned above, there are apps for this like Yale’s Mood Meter which helps subscribers understand his or her range of emotions, what’s causing these feelings, and effective strategies to deal with emotions. Some young people can also benefit from ongoing counseling, especially Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), to further enhance skills related to managing emotions.
Much like managing one’s emotions, stress management is a key component on ensuring that your child’s recovery is steady and to help prevent relapse. Stress can be a trigger for unhealthy behaviors, so it’s important for your child to learn how to cope with stress and determine what works best for them – taking a few deep breaths, going for a walk, reaching out to a trusted friend, going to a support group meeting, etc. – to reduce stress in the moment and allowing your child to treat him or herself with love and care.
In some cases, it may mean scaling back on commitments if possible to focus on getting grounded in recovery. This can include taking a lighter academic load, cutting back on work hours or changing to a less stressful job. For some people, certain relationships can cause a significant amount of stress so examining how much time is spent in their company may be needed as well.
Being in recovery is a huge accomplishment and maintaining it is a life-changing undertaking. As time progresses, and as maintaining recovery gets easier for your child, the ability to look towards the future and set other goals for him or herself is important for self-efficacy and growth. What does the next month look like for your child? What new activities might they want to try? Do they want to learn something new? Try something new? Live independently? Travel? Start or finish a degree? Encouraging new activities and new goals to accomplish further enhances the new life your child has built, free of substance use.
Before enrolling your child in treatment, especially a long-term residential program, be sure to ask if they provide life skills training and what this includes. If your child has already completed formal treatment, consider assessing how your child is doing in these areas and what kind of help he or she may need. It can be somewhat frustrating when your child is lagging behind in skills development, but as his or her most important advocate, you can help your son or daughter succeed in these areas to live a more rewarding and fulfilling life.