Identifying Solutions

When Your Child Sees Substance Use as an Answer, Not a Problem

You've likely made it clear to your child that they shouldn’t be drinking, smoking or using other substances. But despite your best efforts, they keep doing it. Why? And why can't they see how harmful this behavior is? The short answer is that to them, substance use is solving a problem despite the risks or harm.

Uncovering the problem

One of the keys to helping your child reduce or stop their substance use is understanding those underlying problems, and helping them find healthier solutions.

Teens and young adults might initially experiment with substance use for a variety of reasons — to fit in, feel more confident or simply satisfy their curiosity. With time and repeated use, they might find that substance use “solves” other problems for them too, like managing anxiety, falling asleep, keeping up with schoolwork or avoiding other issues.

Your child is engaging in substance use because it solves a problem or meets a need for them, not because they’re trying to frustrate you or drive you crazy.

This is normal human behavior. We all repeat behaviors when there is something to be gained. For example, some people work overtime to meet their financial needs or desires. Some use their spare time to exercise because they enjoy how it makes them feel. Others go to the bar after work because it’s how they relax and socialize. The reward — money, health or socialization — is the reason behaviors are repeated.

Identifying solutions

Knowing what your child gets out of substance use is a bridge to helping them find healthier alternatives to meet the same needs. For example, if your child appears to be drinking or using marijuana out of boredom, help them find other activities to engage in. You know your child best, but here are some ideas to get you started:

In this example, finding solutions to their boredom isn’t a complete answer to stopping their drinking or marijuana use, but every minute engaged in a healthier activity is progress.

Understanding what drives your child’s substance use can also help reduce your sense of anxiety and lend an element of predictability to your child’s behavior. Using our same example, now you know that when your child is bored, their “go to” solution is drinking or using marijuana. You can disrupt this pattern of behavior by finding ways to reduce their boredom.

Maybe you really aren’t sure why your child is using substances. That’s OK. Try asking your child, and do so with a real sense of curiosity and calm. Questions like “What does smoking marijuana do for you?” or “How does drinking help you?” said with a genuine interest — and without judgment or criticism — can go a long way toward understanding. It could be the beginning of a very productive conversation with your child.

Once you have a greater understanding of the problems or needs driving your child’s substance use, you can begin to develop a plan to change the course of their use.

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Understanding the WHY behind your child's substance use

When trying to figure out how to help your child struggling with substance use, one of the most helpful things to do is understand why they’re using in the first place. Helpline specialist Karla Castro-Soto, MS in Marriage & Family Therapy, answers some of parents’ most commonly asked questions about their child’s drug use.