Muir Wood therapist, David Laing


Intervention: Guiding Teens Toward The Right Choices

By talking openly about the addiction, with the help of an interventionist or a family mediator, parents can help to break through the denial that can hide an addiction and they can help their teens enter a formal treatment program for addiction and learn how to leave their troubling actions behind.

The National Institute on Drug Use reports that fewer than 12 percent of teens who are addicted to prescription painkillers get help for their addictions. On a similar note, the Drug and Alcohol Services Information System reports that one-fourth of those who get help for an alcohol abuse issue at age 21 or older started using alcohol between the ages of 12 and 14. Put these two statistics together, and they paint a startling picture of abuse and addiction in the United States. It seems that teens are experimenting with addictive substances at very early ages, and they are either not getting any help at all, or the help they are getting comes when the addiction has been in place for a long period of time.

Families can help by holding an intervention. By talking openly about the addiction, with the help of an interventionist or a family mediator, parents can help to break through the denial that can hide an addiction and they can help their teens enter a formal treatment program for addiction and learn how to leave their troubling actions behind.

Intervention Basics

An intervention could be as simple as one parent talking openly to a child about addiction, and asking that child to stop using drugs or alcohol. However, when most people think about the word “intervention,” they’re thinking about a situation in which the child has been talked to in the past, and that child continues to use, no matter what the parent might say. The relationship begins to fragment and deteriorate, and the parents may feel hopeless and helpless. An intervention is designed to break this cycle and put the breaks on the downward spiral the family is experiencing.

In a traditional intervention, often known as a Johnson Intervention, the family writes letters to the addicted person, typically following this format:

  • An expression of love
  • Retelling of a specific incident in which addiction hurt the family
  • A memory of a better time
  • A statement about the efficacy of treatment
  • A plea for the person to get help
  • A consequence that might befall the person if treatment isn’t accepted

This format is easy to understand and follow, but according to an article in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, this model tends to be “confrontative,” requiring the family to place the blame for the situation on the person’s actions. There are times in which substance use and abuse can make people become combative and reactive, exploding when they’re pushed with an idea or concept they disagree with. Placing a person in a conversation like this could quickly turn into an argument. Hiring an expert could be an excellent way to help families to prevent a comforting talk from turning into a hostile argument.

Intervention Helpers

Bringing in an expert can help the family to learn more about the addiction, and a professional might also help the family to design an intervention using newer, innovative models that don’t place the addicted person on edge. Professionals might also help family members get counseling for their own addiction-related damage, even if the person provided with the intervention never gets help.

An interventionist is a person with training in holding these difficult talks, and some interventionists train with other professionals and participate in hundreds of interventions before they start helping families on their own. Interventionists like this know all about how to help families, and they may be adept at helping the family to plan and execute a helpful talk. Some interventionists will even work as a sober escort, taking the person from the intervention to the treatment facility chosen by the family.

At the end of a mediation session like this, a family mediator might also work as a sober escort.
A family mediator might also play a role in an intervention. These professionals can handle all sorts of disputes within a family, but in an intervention, a family mediator can help to ensure that all the wants and needs of the individual members of the family are met, including the wants and needs of the addicted person. The family might still meet and discuss the issue, but the family mediator might work like a referee, ensuring that everyone is heard.

Preparing for an Intervention

Choosing the proper structure for the intervention is vital. Some families might feel as though the straightforward method in the Johnson intervention works best for their families, for example, while others might feel like a legal-based intervention with a family mediator might be best. Still others might lean on the ARISE Model, in which they use multiple approaches to reach out to the person they love. In one study of this approach, published in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 83 percent of people who were talked to with this model entered treatment, proving that it could be a good option for families who need to enroll someone they love in care.

The family will also need to pull together a team to talk with the teen. Anyone who has influence over the teen could be a valuable participant, including:

  • Coaches
  • Teachers
  • Cousins
  • Sober friends
  • Siblings
  • Grandparents

Participating in an intervention is a serious job, and those who agree to help are often asked to participate in multiple rehearsals or educational sessions. They might role-play, trying to anticipate ways in which the teen might react, or they might just learn more about how addictions impact the teen brain, and try to incorporate those lessons into the talks they hold with the teen. Those people who can’t commit to spending time on this process shouldn’t be included in the intervention plan.

Some intervention approaches allow the teen to participate in the planning and educational sessions, but others work as a “surprise,” capitalizing on the moment to break through denial and provide an important message. In either case, families need to choose meeting times in which the teen is likely to be sober. For some families, this means observing the teen closely and perhaps taking time off work to hold the meetings at mid-morning, when the teen is typically sober.

Common Reactions

An interventionist or family mediator might also remind the teen that family therapy will be part of the healing process, so the teen will be able to address all of these issues in therapy.

Many teens who abuse substances live with parents who also abuse substances. For example, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 68.1 percent of teens who use alcohol live with a father who abuses alcohol. These teens might transition to alcoholism, and in an intervention, these teens might bring this fact to light. Ugly responses like this are common when teens feel threatened, and families can help by sticking to the script and refusing to respond to the bait.

Teens might cry, yell, clam up or try to leave. As soon as they agree to enter treatment, however, the talk is over. If that ending comes when the first letter is read, the family can use a sober escort to take the teen to therapy. If the teen never agrees to go to therapy, treatment might come a few days later, when the teen has had a chance to process everything that was said and come to an understanding about why help is vital. Some families even hold multiple interventions, not giving up until the teen goes into care. It can be hard work, and it can be upsetting, but fighting for the child’s life is something a parent can find the strength to do, and the rewards might be huge.

At Muir Wood, we help families to smooth the admissions process, so their sons can enter treatment programs as soon as the intervention is over. We also help families find a qualified interventionist or family mediator, so they can prepare for this important talk. If you’d like to find out more about these services, please call us.

Further Reading

Muir Wood Adolescent and Family Services is a Joint Commission-accredited mental health and substance use disorder treatment provider located in Petaluma, California. We provide integrated evidence-based care including psychiatry, psychotherapy, experiential therapy, wellness services, and milieu therapy for adolescents and teens, and their family members.