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Youth Substance Use: Information for Parents

The Stages of Change

When your child is using substances in a harmful way, you want them to stop. But every time you try to talk with them, you end up fighting and feel like you get nowhere. If you want to support your child to change, it’s important to understand how change happens. Behaviour doesn’t change overnight.

There are 6 stages in the process of change.

Stage 1: “I don’t see a problem.”

Stage 1 starts before a person even thinks about changing. At this stage they don’t see a problem and don’t want to change their behaviour. If your child is in this stage, you may hear things like:

  • “It’s not a problem.”
  • “Leave me alone.”
  • “I don’t use more than any of my friends.”

The more you say there is a problem, the more your child will deny it, and the more you will fight with each other. If your child isn’t thinking about change yet, the best thing to do is talk with them about what a problem looks like.

Talk about the risks of substance use. But also let your child know that you understand that they may find it fun to use substances or it helps them relax. When you love and worry about someone, you tend to focus on the risks and the downside of the issue. But, youth are more likely to talk when you accept there are both sides and they see you’re willing to learn too.

This doesn’t mean you can’t say you’re worried. Letting you child know that you care about them is important. But it’s also important to let them know how you feel without making them feel judged.

Stage 2: “Maybe there is a problem, but I hope not.”

Stage 2 happens when people start to see the harmful effects of their use. They may admit to seeing a problem one day, but not know if they see a problem the next. If your child is in this stage, they may say things like:

  • “Well, maybe there is a bit of a problem, but I can handle it.”
  • “I know that my substance use is causing problems between us.”
  • “I’m not sure if there is a problem or not.”

In this stage, your child may struggle to understand the problem. You can help by talking about both sides of a decision to change. Look at the benefits of changing and the risks of not changing the behaviour.

Stage 3: “I want to change, but not today.”

In stage 3, your child is getting ready to make a change. They are also asks questions about what change will look like and what they’ll have to do. They may start using less or using a substance less often. They may be unsure about making a change, but are strongly leaning toward it.

If your child is in this stage, you might hear things like:

  • “I know I need to stop, but I’ll try next month.”
  • “I want to quit, but I’m not sure how.”

As a parent, you can help your child think about the best way to make a change. Everyone is different and there is more than one way to change behaviour. Help your child look at all options and choose one that fits best for them.

At this point, you and your child may find it helpful to talk to a counsellor to better understand all of your options.

Stage 4: “I’m ready to make a change.”

Stage 4 is when your child is ready to make a behaviour change. This is the stage most parents hope their child will be ready for right from the start of the problem. But your child has to work through the first 3 stages before they are ready to actually make a change.

A parent’s role in this stage is to support their child to get help. At this stage, remember:

  • to be patient
  • that change takes time
  • that problems don’t start overnight or go away easily

At this stage, your child may need to work with a counsellor, go to a support group, or go to a treatment program to start their recovery.

Stage 5: “Staying on the recovery road.”

Keeping a behaviour change takes work. When substance use has stopped, your child may need to learn new behaviors so they don’t go back to their old ones.

Many people who change their behaviour stay in this stage for a long time. Your child may choose to keep going to counselling and support groups for ongoing support.

Sometimes a person in this stage will use a substance again. This may happen one time or keep happening. This can be a part of recovery. If your child uses a substance again, remember that they have made it through 5 stages of change. If your child starts using a substance again, it’s important to support them without making them feel like they failed.

Stage 6: “I’ve made it.”

At this stage, change has happened. Your child knows they are able to cope with problems without using a substance.

Not everyone will reach this stage. But most can focus on keeping the positive changes they’ve made and work to stay in recovery.

Be patient

Now that you know how change happens, work with your child and not against them. When you push your child to change before they’re ready, it will likely cause them to take a step backwards.

Know what stage your child is in and meet them where they’re at. If you get impatient or wish your child would change their behavior more quickly, think about talking to a counsellor or joining a support group.

More information

Alberta Health Services offers many addiction and mental health services to help you, your child, and your family, including:

  • information and prevention programs
  • group and family counseling
  • outpatient and residential treatment
  • the Protection of Children Abusing Drugs Program (PChAD)

For more information or to find services near you, call Health Link at 811.

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