How Parent Involvement Helps Kids in Addiction Recovery

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Parents have a powerful influence on their children’s choices, setting the tone for values and behavior. How can a concerned parent help prevent substance abuse and/or help kids in addiction recovery? The National Institutes of Health offers suggestions including early awareness and intervention, family bonding, and supervision of children’s activities.

But the best laid plans don’t guarantee perfect results. What should parents do when a child’s substance addiction turns a home into a war zone? Kimberly Kirby, PhD, and Tisha Miller, LCSW, of the Philadelphia-based Family Training Program provided solid suggestions:

Q: Describe the program.

A: The Family Training Program is part of the Treatment Research Institute’s (TRI) Parents Translational Research Center, which is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The center works to provide solutions to challenges parents face when their adolescent or young adult is drinking or using drugs.

The program provides free services to qualified family members who volunteer to participate in a study. The studies compare different ways to help family members gain knowledge or develop skills to help guide them as they deal with the substance use. Our services are based in well-established or empirically-supported approaches.

Right now, studies are designed for parents of children ages 12 to 25 who use drugs or alcohol. The knowledge and skills we provide helps parents interact effectively with their child. The goal is to improve outcomes for the youth, the parents, and their relationship with each other. We monitor the youth’s participation in treatment, his or her drug use, and behavioral problems, as well as whether parents feel and can function better and whether the relationship improves.

Q: What led to the program’s creation?

A: The program is an extension of Dr. Kirby’s research. She received postdoctoral training in behavioral pharmacology and substance abuse at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, which led to research on how substance abuse affects families. She was disturbed by approaches that looked for problems in the relationships of families affected by addiction and implied these problems caused the substance abuse. It seemed equally likely to Kirby that substance abuse could be disrupting the family dynamics.

Q: One of the tag lines suggests working with you can help parents take control of their child’s addiction. Is it possible to take control of another’s addiction?  If not, what’s the next best thing?

A: We can’t control others, but we can control how we react to them. Because family members usually are important to each other, they can influence each other’s behavior, including substance use. Parents have much more influence on their adolescent than they realize. At the Family Training Program, we try to teach parents to make the most of their influence.

Q: Are some of the parents in the program dealing with substance abuse themselves?  If so, how do you work with that while trying to teach them to help the child?

A: We work with parents in recovery. A parent who has struggled with substance use provides a unique perspective that can be an asset.

We can work with parents who might be using substances, but parents who have significant struggles in this area need services beyond what the program offers. In those situations, we can make a referral that better meets the parent’s needs.

Q: Do you see a difference in success based on the age of the participants or duration of substance abuse?

A: We haven’t analyzed the data from our current clinical trial because it’s still underway. But based on previous research, we know the way family members are taught to react to the substance use can lead to big differences in success rates. For example, some approaches make it three times more likely the person using alcohol or drugs will agree to treatment. Research also suggests that the longer substance use continues, the more difficult it is to influence it. A 2009 study suggests that people who start using alcohol or drugs in their teens are more likely to develop substance use problems than those who begin in their twenties.

Q: Do you refer out for treatment and follow up?

A: We try to provide appropriate referrals when an adolescent or young adult is open to help. We offer to meet with the youth and/or family to assess their needs, educate them about the referral process, and tell them what they can expect in treatment. If the youth or family isn’t satisfied with a provider they’ve chosen, we’re also available to guide them to get the care they want.

As part of the study, we follow up with the parents and adolescents or young adults. We ask if the youth has entered treatment and if so, how long he or she stayed. We ask about the youth’s current substance use and any problems they may be experiencing. We ask parents about their functioning and happiness, and we ask both about their satisfaction with their relationship with each other.

Q: Can you share any anecdotes about ways the program has made a difference in participants’ lives?

A: The program has provided parents with the coping skills and strategies to help the family. Overall, parents who’ve completed our program report feeling more equipped to deal with their child’s substance use.

One parent said, “I got so much out of [the Family Training Program]. My son is doing better, and is coming around little by little. The person I worked with gave me little things to do. It was great just to have someone to talk to and something to do rather than nothing. I really benefited. [The Family Training Program] really helped me. I learned a lot of things that have helped me in other situations too.”

Q: Is involvement from faith communities, 12-step programs, and 12-step alternatives such as SMART Recovery helpful?

A: Many parents find a support community to be very helpful. We’ve heard positive reports from parents about 12-step and SMART Recovery groups. But these groups aren’t for everyone, and they can differ a lot from each other. Every treatment experience isn’t alike; neither is every support group. We’d recommend that parents looking for this kind of support sample several groups to find the best fit. We recently launched The Support Group Project, a directory of in-person and online groups throughout the country. It provides information about where, when, and how groups meet so families can find the group that best fits their needs.

The Parents Translational Research Center has created research-based tools for parents including:

  • Questions to Ask Treatment Programs, a comprehensive workbook that helps parents find the right help for their teen or young adult struggling with drugs or alcohol.
  • Underage Drinking in the Home, an interactive online resource for parents and caregivers to help inform them of the legal liabilities of serving alcohol to teens.
  • Six Parenting Practices, a booklet that explains parenting practices that can help reduce the chances a child will develop a drug or alcohol problem.  It’s also available in Spanish.

TRI provides these and other resources on a Web page geared toward families affected by substance abuse.

Parents interested in learning more about the Family Training Program should call 877-i-worry-2 (877-496-7792), email, or visit

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