Andrew never knew his father. At age 4, he witnessed the death of his mother from an overdose. She was heroin dependent, and they were living in a car at the time. After her death, Andrew entered the foster care system. Between the ages of 4 and 15, he experienced more than a dozen different placements. Not surprisingly, with each move, his behavior became increasingly problematic.

At age 9, Andrew started drinking alcohol. By age 11, he was using alcohol and marijuana regularly. He discovered meth as a 13-year-old and went to inpatient care for the first time. He ran away after four days. When he was 15, he ran from the group home where he was living.

When Andrew entered treatment at age 16, he was on probation and had just moved into a transitional living program after several months on the streets. When he started treatment, he met Branding-Images_Unstuckthe criteria for multiple substance use disorders. He also had pre-existing mental health diagnoses that included posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, conduct disorder and major depressive disorder. At that time, Andrew said he had no interest in stopping his substance use because “that’s not a problem for me.”

In his treatment journal, Andrew wrote, “Lots of times I feel like I’m living in some kind of black hole. I’m alone, but not really, because everything’s there, because I just can’t escape it no matter what I try. It’s black there, because that’s what black holes are, right? But black is really all the colors at once, every single one of them. And that’s too many damned colors if you ask me.”

Understanding the stuckness

Very few teenagers enter substance abuse treatment by choice. They show up due to legal mandates, school requirements, family pressure or other external reasons. Often they see treatment as the least bad choice — only slightly better than detention, suspension or homelessness. Like Andrew, these teens often appear unwilling or unable to do things differently, even though their current behaviors are clearly causing problems. In other words, they’re stuck.

I propose that our primary task as counselors is to help these teens get unstuck — not behave better, fulfill mandates or even stop using substances. We can hope those other things happen. I certainly do. However, it seems to me that those changes can occur only when an individual gets unstuck.

When helping teens get unstuck, we need to maintain a developmental perspective as counselors. Various developmental models exist, with most including a progression of stages that individuals move through, and each stage featuring specific tasks to be accomplished. The primary stage-specific tasks for adolescence are generally considered to be developing identity and establishing autonomy. As part of establishing autonomy, it is normal for adolescents to question, rebel against and ultimately reject the plans of authority figures, including the most well-intended plans of professional helpers.

Sometimes, those well-intended plans lead to reactance, which is a tendency to resist influences perceived as a threat to one’s autonomy. Many adolescent treatment programs are designed in ways likely to exacerbate reactance. We tell adolescents what, when, why and how. In residential programs, we restrict personal items. In wilderness programs, we often take away everything. Then we wonder why participants are unsuccessful. Worse, we blame them — declaring them in denial, resistant to treatment, unwilling to engage or simply noncompliant. Instead of helping, we’ve increased their stuckness.

Reactance can be exacerbated by what I think of as developmental debt. Most developmental theories state that if a person doesn’t successfully complete the tasks for a specific stage, then he or she remains in that stage. It seems to me that this might not be accurate. Instead, sociocultural and biological factors keep pushing individuals forward, even when tasks at another stage are unresolved or only partially completed.

With every push forward, an individual becomes less likely to complete the next stage. This leads to an ever-growing developmental debt. Much like with a credit card that’s never fully paid off, the person not only will always have a balance due, but he or she will get further behind each month.

With this developmental perspective in mind, I propose five strategies for fostering change with teenagers who have co-occurring disorders. Inspired by motivational interviewing, stages of change, narrative approaches and existential psychotherapy, I have found these strategies useful for helping this population to overcome rigid thinking, get unstuck and start moving forward.

Slow down

Traditionally, drug treatment programs have assumed that anyone entering services is ready to get and stay clean. This simply isn’t true. Change is a process, not an event. When we slow down, we’re able to help participants move through that process. Developed by James Prochaska, John Norcross and Carlo DiClemente, the stages of change is an evidence-based transtheoretical model that identifies five steps in the process of change:

  • Precontemplation: The person doesn’t believe he or she has any problems related to the target behavior, so the person sees no reason to make changes. To help participants in this stage, we can focus on building a therapeutic alliance, validate the participant’s lack of desire to change and provide objective information.
  • Contemplation: The person is considering the possibility that a problem might exist but hasn’t yet decided if change is necessary. To help participants in this stage, we can explore the pros and cons of continuing to use substances, gently identify contradictions, help make links between substance use and mental health challenges, and provide opportunities to imagine or experience alternatives.
  • Preparation: The person has identified a problem related to the target behavior and is deciding what to do next. To help participants in this stage, we can encourage small initial steps or experiments, continue to explore and solidify motivation for change, and help eliminate obstacles to change.
  • Action: The person has decided to change the target behavior, has developed a plan and is now putting that plan into action. To help participants in this stage, we can explore ways to implement change, provide support, build self-efficacy and remain solution focused.
  • Maintenance: When the new behavior has become habit, the person has entered this stage. I propose that six months of sobriety is a good milestone for this. To help participants in this stage, we can provide ongoing support, continue to explore real or perceived obstacles and foster resiliency.

In addition to these five stages, there’s Recycle, which occurs when a participant reverts to behaviors from an earlier stage. When a participant recycles, many helpers blame the person’s lack of skills, situational factors or unwillingness to change. Extenuating circumstances may certainly be present, but it seems to me that recycles occur because we push participants into the action stage too quickly. As such, recycles are potent reminders that we should slow down and revisit earlier stages, looking for unfinished or overlooked business.

Identify their motivators

Teens often enter services believing that they’re free of problems or that their only problem is something external. It may not seem like success to some, but the change process has begun when teens report treatment as the least bad option, state that their only problem is that others think there’s a problem or make similar comments. These may not be the motivators we desire for participants, but change requires meeting them where they are at, not where we want them to be.

We can help clients discover and deepen their motivators by using the “Five R’s” from William Miller and Stephen Rollnick’s motivational interviewing:

  • Relevance: Why is change important?
  • Risks: What are the risks of changing? What are the risks of not changing?
  • Rewards: What will you gain from change?
  • Roadblocks: What are the obstacles to change?
  • Repetition: Review these elements at each session.

Sometimes, to help participants solidify their motivators for change, we need to assist them in developing problem-recognition skills. We can do this by exploring what defines a problem; nurturing mindfulness; and creating an inclusive, nonjudgmental treatment environment.

Approaches from narrative therapy can also be helpful. Teens with co-occurring disorders typically enter treatment with problem-saturated stories. These tales of stuckness have become the defining stories for their lives. Help them discover new stories and further increase problem-recognition skills by:

  • Externalizing the problem: Instead of “having” a problem or “being” a problem, assist participants to view problems as existing outside themselves. This helps remove pressures rooted in blame, shame and defensiveness. Take
    this even further by encouraging participants to think of problems as characters in their stories.
  • Seeking exceptions: We build and sustain problem-saturated stories by ignoring times when the problem wasn’t in control. Seeking exceptions involves assisting participants to discover those ignored times. These exceptions hold
    the keys to change, so explore them in great detail.
  • Reauthoring stories: Once exceptions have been discovered, participants can start reauthoring their problem-saturated stories. Reauthoring gives them the opportunity to create new, more empowering stories with plots that focus on moving forward.

Some teenagers are so stuck that they’re unable to identify any exceptions to their problem-saturated stories. In these cases, it can be useful for counselors to add a fourth approach to those cited previously: creating exceptions. One way for these teens to break the cycle of stuckness is to try something new. I’ve had participants explore belly dancing, glass blowing, rock climbing, rugby, hand drumming and much more.

Expect ambivalence

As I’ve noted, the change process has begun when a teen’s thinking moves from “I don’t have a problem” to “My only problem is that other people think there’s a problem.” When this occurs, the participant has moved into the contemplation stage of change. This stage is about ambivalence, which can be defined as simultaneously believing two seemingly contradictory ideas.

Ambivalence is common for all teenagers, who desire the privileges of adulthood while retaining the comforts of childhood. In the case of substance-using teens, there is often another, more complex layer — wanting to fix their problem while continuing to use. Andrew described this ambivalence well: “Using has really messed up my life, but I don’t think I’ll ever stop. When I’m high, the bad feelings go away. I don’t think about the past, and I don’t care about the future. For a little while, my brain shuts up and I can pretend everything’s OK.”

Some professional helpers focus solely on the reasons to stop using, perhaps believing that any discussion about the possible benefits of drug use will be seen as an endorsement. This simply isn’t true. Helping youth such as Andrew get unstuck requires a sincere, nonjudgmental exploration of both the pros and the cons of substance use. Here are a few other ideas for resolving ambivalence:

  • Normalize the process. Change is hard. It conflicts with deeply ingrained behavioral patterns and neural pathways. It requires us to ignore the stories we tell about who and what we are. It requires us to face the unknown. Because change is hard, we’d rather stick to the known, even when it is not effective or useful anymore. Helping participants realize that ambivalence is common can be essential to helping them get unstuck.
  • Explore the risks of changing. High-risk behavior is common in the lives of many teens with co-occurring disorders. Paradoxically, these teens are often risk avoidant. As Prochaska, Norcross and DiClemente noted in 1994, change “threatens our very identity and asks us to relinquish our way of being.” This is dangerous stuff for anyone, but for stuck teens, it can feel especially risky. Helping them make lasting change requires exploring the risks involved.
  • Foster self-efficacy. Albert Bandura wrote that self-efficacy is “the belief in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations.” In other words, it is a person’s belief in his or her ability to succeed. Teens with low self-efficacy avoid challenging tasks, focus on negative outcomes and quickly lose confidence in their ability to be successful. They have very little interest in attempting to change.
  • Disrupt rigid thinking habits. Teens with co-occurring disorders typically exhibit all-or-nothing thinking, catastrophize, deny having problems and blame others. These rigid thinking patterns reinforce their ambivalence. Resolving ambivalence requires them to think between the extremes. Traditional cognitive behavioral approaches identify these thinking patterns as irrational, erroneous and maladaptive. I prefer the term thinking habits, because habits can be changed.
  • Address existential concerns. Irvin Yalom identified four “givens” that define an existential perspective to psychotherapy: death, meaninglessness, freedom and isolation. Professional helpers sometimes shy away from these existential concerns, especially when working with adolescents. However, these givens are very much present in the lives of teens and can contribute significantly to both stuckness and ambivalence. Acknowledge these givens and explore them with participants.

Become trauma-informed

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration defines trauma-informed care as “an approach to engaging people with histories of trauma that recognizes the presence of trauma symptoms and acknowledges the role that trauma has played in their lives.” Trauma-informed care includes the use of carefully developed approaches that reduce the likelihood of retraumatizing participants while integrating safety, trustworthiness, choice, collaboration and connection into all interactions.

Studies show that as many as 75 percent of teens in treatment for substance use disorders have experienced some form of traumatic stress. This occurs when an individual is exposed to a potentially traumatizing event or situation that overwhelms his or her ability to cope. Traumatic stress can be caused by a one-time experience or complex trauma, which can be defined as the experience of multiple traumatic events. Traumatic stress can lead to PTSD, a severe anxiety disorder that develops after exposure to traumatic stress. PTSD is a clinical diagnosis that requires the presence of specific symptoms, such as nightmares about the traumatic event, avoidance of stimuli associated with the event, increased arousal and hypervigilance. Regardless of whether they meet the diagnostic threshold for PTSD, teen trauma survivors often exhibit the following:

  • Hyperarousal: Survivors can become extremely vigilant about their surroundings and often experience high levels of anxiety, which leads to sleep problems, trouble concentrating, feeling constantly on guard or being easily startled.
  • Intrusion: Memories, flashbacks, and nightmares can continue long after the original traumatic exposure. Additionally, survivors sometimes unintentionally reenact aspects of the trauma. For example, teen survivors often engage in highly risky behaviors.
  • Constriction: Attempts to avoid intrusion frequently result in survivors withdrawing from the world both physically and emotionally. Agoraphobia, substance use, limited social interactions and dissociation are a few examples of constriction.

When an individual has both a substance use disorder and traumatic stress, we usually assume that the trauma led to using the substance. However, substance use often leads to trauma exposure — or further exposure. In addition, pre-existing mental health challenges and a variety of other factors can increase the likelihood of trauma exposure. Whether trauma leads to drug use, drug use leads to trauma or a more complex scenario is present, substance-abusing survivors often find themselves perpetually stuck.

Even though risky behavior is evident in the lives of most substance-abusing teens, and especially those with trauma histories, these youth are frequently risk adverse, with their risky behaviors serving as ineffective attempts to avoid risk or distractions from their past trauma. Some adolescent survivors are so obsessed with safety that they resort to substances and other maladaptive methods in an effort to find it. Still other teens lead lives so constricted that they barely participate in life. According to Judith Herman, in all these cases, trauma has “cast the victim into a state of existential crisis” in which all choices likely lead to even further stuckness.

Create connectedness

Edward Hallowell wrote that connectedness “is a sense of being a part of something larger than oneself. It is a sense of belonging, or a sense of accompaniment. It is that feeling in your bones that you are not alone. … Connectedness is my word for the force that urges us to ally, to affiliate, to enter into mutual relationships, to take strength and to grow through cooperative behavior.”

For teens with co-occurring disorders, this sense of connectedness is typically missing. I believe that isolation exacerbates all life problems, so I strongly propose that the first step toward ensuring a valuable therapeutic experience is helping participants move toward increased connectedness. In clinical settings, we can focus on two types of connectedness: group cohesion and therapeutic alliance.

Group cohesion: It seems to me that groups should be part of the treatment plan for any teen with co-occurring disorders. That said, for change to happen in groups, a strong sense of cohesion is essential. We can help achieve group cohesion by remembering this simple formula: Cohesion = Shared Fun + Safety.

When working in groups, it is essential that we create safe spaces. This includes physical, emotional and social safety. We can create a sense of safety by modeling what we expect. That means being consistent and reliable, treating participants and co-facilitators in a welcoming manner and ensuring that groups are fully inclusive.

Some treatment approaches seem to assume that participants are fragile, hopelessly damaged or completely dysregulated. Fun activities and laughter have no place is such approaches. That’s a shame. Shared fun activities build connectedness between group members and provide valuable opportunities to practice interpersonal skills. In addition, the use of fun and games helps alter negative preconceived notions of treatment, provides entry points for less verbal participants and helps teens reauthor their stories to include a world where laughter is the norm.

Therapeutic alliance: Numerous studies show that a strong therapeutic alliance is the most important indicator of positive outcomes when working with teens. When we take time to foster a strong alliance by genuinely embracing our participants’ real motivators, we stop being an adversary and become an ally. This allows us to gently challenge the ambivalence, thinking habits and other roadblocks that keep participants stuck.

Edward Bordin wrote that a strong therapeutic alliance is composed of three elements: a positive bond between the therapist and participant, agreement regarding the tasks of treatment and agreement about the goals of treatment. In other words, there is congruence between the participant and the therapist. It seems to me that there also exists a need for transparency. Here are a few ideas for this:

  • Explain what you’re doing as a counselor. Take time to explain the theory behind your therapeutic approaches. In addition, explain to the teen what you hope to achieve by asking a particular question or assigning a specific homework task. This not only increases transparency but also improves buy-in.
  • Remember that relationships are reciprocal. We expect participants to be honest. They should get the same from us. Don’t disclose excessive amounts of personal information, but do answer questions that have been sincerely asked. Be genuine and model openness.
  • Use concurrent documentation. Before ending individual sessions, write your progress note. Then have the participant read the progress note and write his or her own summary of the session. This may seem a bit clumsy at first, but in my experience, most participants quickly embrace the process.

Addiction as an attachment disorder 

Substance abuse specialists familiar with attachment theory invariably report an inverse relationship between substance use disorders and healthy interpersonal attachments. In traditional treatment, unhealthy interpersonal attachments are generally considered the result of addiction. There is no doubt that heavy substance abuse is likely to exert a negative influence on relationships. However, there is mounting evidence that insecure attachment styles are risk factors for problematic substance use.

There are two basic concepts that are important for us to consider. First, if we don’t have opportunities to observe caregivers engaging in effective emotional regulation, we may resort to substances in an effort to manage uncomfortable feelings. Second, if we don’t connect to other people in meaningful, emotionally satisfying ways, we will find something else to fill that void.

Andrew referred to this void as a black hole made of all colors and tried to fill it with alcohol, drugs and significant acting-out behaviors. Other teens try to fill their voids with gangs, gambling, food, sex or video games. When we slow down and meet participants where they are at, we are able to help them get unstuck and start the change process so that they can see all the colors, not just black.




Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

David Flack is a licensed mental health counselor, chemical dependency professional and child mental health specialist. He lives in the Seattle area and has worked for the past dozen years exclusively with teenagers who have co-occurring disorders. He has special interests in the comorbidity of substance use and trauma in adolescents, the use of experiential learning in clinical settings and the unique challenges faced by LGBTQ teens. Contact him at

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