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Working With Parents Of Young People
Who Are Using Alcohol, Tobacco Or Other Drugs

The primary role of those working with parents/care-givers of children with drug use problems is to support rather than undermine the role of parent.

While there is room for suggestion, this should only be offered when the parent(s) own experience and options have been fully explored.

It may, however, be useful to print, Tips for parents on addressing drug use by their child as a handout for parents. Other useful links are presented at the end of this page.

The key here is for you to value parental experience and knowledge and to model the type of behaviour you will expect parents to use with their children.

The following intervention is generally based on action learning (review, plan, act) and Solution Focused Brief Therapy pp models (acknowledge distress, but focus on success - if it doesn't work, do something different, once you know what works, do it more).

Right click here (93KB) to download a MS Word Document written for NSW welfare workers on managing high risk youth with alcohol and other drug problems.


1. Hear the concern (acknowledge distress)
2. Involve both parents
3. Define the issue and goals
4. What's happening and what's been tried
5. Broker or provide services as required
6. Developmental issues
7. Listening
8. Telling
9. Research on what works and what doesn't work
10. Provide written material as required

11. What to do when 'nothing' is working?

Related Internet Sites

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1. Hear the concern (acknowledge distress)

    Parents are often very distressed about their son/daughter's drug use. They need their fears, anxieties and concerns to be fully heard. However, do not deepen problems. Rather look for opportunities to congratulate on their management of distress.

2. Involve both parents

Often only one parent will make the initial contact. Assess the other parent's involvement and point of view. If possible, have both parents present for further sessions. Where parents have different views on strategy, this needs to be resolved prior to moving on.

Where the views of parents seem to be in total opposition (eg tough vs soft approach), it may even be necessary to ask parents to agree on a trial of one or the other approach for a period and then to review what worked and what didn't.

3. Define the issue and goals

Ask parents to define problems associated with drug use rather than simply focusing on drug use itself. Also ask how things would l

ok if these problems weren't there. Thus goals are described in terms of what parents would like less of and more of. These goals should relate to their drug using child, other family members and themselves.

Where possible, work with parents about what they would like more of. (eg. better grades at school, more financially secure, more peace of mind, more control over drug use).

4. What's happening and what's been tried

Shift the conversation to what's actually happening now around stated goals. Try to get parent(s) to describe in specific, behavioural terms. Also ask for any exceptions to the problem (when the problem is not there or when part of the goal is achieved).

Ask parents about what they have tried. Determine with them what seemed to work and what didn't work around goals. If the conversation is initially centred around drug use, broaden it to include some other factors previously mentioned such as responsibility, schooling and safety issues. The aim of this conversation is to develop a comprehensive list of possible workable strategies as well as ones to discontinue using.

5. Broker or provide services as required

While you may remain their primary support person, other specialist services may be needed to deal with the variety of issues as they arise. Members of the family may require marriage counselling, medical services, legal support, family therapy, individual specialist counselling as well as possibly needing to learn new skills such as communication, mediation, and conflict resolution skills.

Self-help services should also be considered. This can be anything from a self-help booklet to regular self-help groups or telephone counselling services.  See Agencies for local contact numbers and services.

The Family Drug Support program (NSW based) 1300 368 186 offer an Australia-wide, 24 hour free call hotline. Trained, parent volunteer counsellors staff the phones. 

For Western Australians, the Parent Drug Information Service (PDIS)
(08) 94425050
or 1800 198 024 (toll free for WA country callers only) provides professional telephone counsellors 24 hours a day.  On request, the call can also be transferred to WA trained, parent volunteer telephone counsellors.

Click here for other state by state telephone help information (from ADCA)

6. Developmental issues

Adolescents’ developmental issues include developing independence and separating from family of origin. While this may be part of the reason for drug use, it also provides possible solutions. Asking young people to 'help' mum and dad by explaining to them how they are going to manage to use drugs safely will place a burden of responsibility on the young person. For this to work, the parents will need to be genuinely interested in letting their son/daughter explore for themselves safety issues.

Hearing the views of the young person with the drug problem as well as the views of other children in the family helps to redistribute power and may mobilise positive energy from the children.

Parents may also require support in developing and negotiating new boundaries, roles and responsibilities between themselves and their adolescent son/daughter.

7. Listening

Many parents are not skilled at listening techniques and may require support and practice in this area. The potent mix of fear, anger, anxiety and frustration along with feelings of loss of control is not conducive to active listening. In particular, listening to the reasons why their daughter/son enjoys drug use, without interrupting, can be challenging. Rather than simply teaching listening skills, rehearse parent strategies and incorporate listening skills at that time.

Parents may be encouraged to use reflective listening if they understand that this will help the young person take responsibility for their actions.

8. Telling

There is a role for telling young people about how their behaviour affects parents. Initially, this may be achieved by parents expressing their feelings of concern around safety, school, etc. This can then open the way for the young person to explain how they are going to manage these things.

Telling young people about the rules of the house regarding drug use is also important. However, parents should be encouraged to discuss these with a counsellor in the first instance and then consider which aspects are negotiable and which are non-negotiable.

Having negotiable aspects of rules and boundaries are particularly important for parent and child to form a cooperative partnership.

9. Research on what works and what doesn't work

Source: Barnes G. Research Institute on Addictions from Research In Brief Sept 1995

What Works

Emotional support and monitoring appear to be key factors in reducing alcohol and other drug use and associated problem behaviours. "Monitoring means knowing where your kids are, who their friends are, when they are coming in, and so on. We found that it's important for all adolescents and especially for the older kids."

Supportive families have parents who, "openly show affection, give their children praise and encouragement, maintain open communications, and do things with their children which both parents and kids enjoy." In relation to monitoring, Dr Barnes (1995) points out that, "A supportive environment makes the kids more receptive to monitoring, but it has to come earlier in the developmental span for it to have an effect."

What Doesn't Work

Controlling teenagers through physical discipline does not appear to be effective. "Coercive control, such as slapping and hitting, is associated with more problem behaviours…"

Reasoning , a parenting style known as inductive control, also seemed to have little effect. "This approach was popular in the 60s and 70s. It's where the parent sits down with the teenager and uses rational, logical explanations for why he or she should or should not do something. We found that this has no effect on adolescent behaviours per se. Clear, concrete guidelines seem to work best".

10. Provide written material as required

A session with a counsellor/supporter can be anxiety producing and time pressured. The provision of written material allows parents further options to self-select in their own time and space.

11. What to do when 'nothing' is working?

At times, there may be extreme presentations (eg youth self-harming/suicidal, chaotic, high risk drug use such as a heavy heroin habit, prostitution and other illegal activity, violence to parents, etc). Some of these factors may present after some initial success.

It is always useful to identify any differences in how parent(s) are coping with these issues. Ask if they have been doing any things differently and if any of these things have been useful.

These cases in particular, require five primary goals for case management:

  1. Survival and improved safety of the young person
  2. Support of the parent(s)/care-giver(s) and other family members of the young person
  3. Safety of others who may be the victims of chaotic and abusive behaviour
  4. Identification of not only the problems of the case, but also the strengths/ resources used and successes achieved
  5. Worker survival through the effective use of the supervisory process and other strategies

Multiple services and interventions may be required. Supervision and support for the worker/supporter is essential both for your own well-being as well as that of the clients associated with the case.

Parents are often very distressed about their son/daughter's drug use. They need their fears, anxieties, frustrations and concerns to be fully heard.  However, attempt to not deepen helplessness and hopelessness by utilising the the steps outlined above:

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Related Internet Sites:

Links with PDF following the title require Acrobat Reader to view and print.
You can download a free copy of Acrobat Reader by clicking on the button below

getacro.gif (712 bytes)

Families - National Drug Campaign

How Parents Influence Adolescent Alcohol Consumption (WA - PDF)

 Drug Aware Parent's Booklet & other parent project info (WA - WADASO)

Information for Parents
6 different items provided (NSW CEIDA)

Parents Advice on Teenagers & Drugs (SA)

Teenagers Parties (SA)

Planning Your Party - for Secondary Students (WA - PDF)

Information for Youth on Drugs (SA)

Parents Communicating With Your Teenager About Drugs (VIC ADF)

Treatments for ADD ADHD (Attention Deficit Disorder) (USA)

Research on What Works and What Doesn't
(Research Institute on Addictions from Research In Brief, USA)


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Other DrugNet Pages in this Subject Heading

Introduction ] Parent Risk Assessment ] Child Abuse ] [ Parents of Youth Drug Use ] Parent Tips ] Adolescents ]

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