MY TAY Clients are so Unmotivated!

by Stars Training Academy   5 Comments

photo of teenage boy making a face

I often hear this frustrated complaint from practitioners when working with youth and young adult programs around the country. TAY providers frequently identify substance abuse as one of the biggest barriers and most destructive behaviors that they encounter.  Staff may express a sense of helplessness and futility, reporting that their youths are extremely resistant, in denial and uninterested in getting help.  What’s a TAY provider to do?

  1. Part of the answer may be rooted in TAY programs having a firm grasp of harm reduction principles and practices.  Accepting the fact that many of our youth are actively using and are not ready to stop is a starting point.
  1. Keep in mind the importance of a positive, honest relationship over the long term – it’s a huge resiliency factor.   Youth who have this connection are far more likely to make healthy changes than the many youth who do not.
  1. Harm reduction practices can greatly expand the conversation and options for youth to explore the many worthwhile, incremental changes short of abstinence.

Motivational Interviewing techniques also have much to offer beleaguered TAY providers.  MI reminds us to check our impatience at the door, and that it’s our job to meet youth where they are at (matching our intervention to their stage of change), not their job to meet our expectations and treatment schedule.  When coming along-side “pre-contemplative” youth (think medical marijuana cards) who are not considering making any changes, anytime soon, avoid damaging power struggles and fully support their identified  goals in other domains (jobs, school, housing).  Substance abuse is likely to keep popping up as a barrier to the youth’s aspirations and can create “teachable moments” for positive change down the road.

One other key point to consider; good substance abuse care is good trauma informed care  (and vice-versa).  Bust out of any treatment silos or frameworks that views these issues separately – an integrated approach is essential.  The sooner youth and young adults learn about trauma impacts and begin to recognize how their substance abuse is frequently an adaptive attempt to cope with overwhelming pain, fear and disturbing emotions – the sooner they can begin to look at developing alternative coping strategies.  It can be very engaging and empowering for youth to view their drug and alcohol use, not as character flaws, pathological symptoms and “crazy,” but as understandable attempts to survive the many terrifying experiences they have often endured.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Betty Dahlquist January 30, 2014 at 9:23 pm

As always, very thoughtful and right on advice. Thank you Wayne. How about doing a workshop at the CASRA spring conference in San Mateo April 23-24, 2014?


Wayne February 3, 2014 at 6:06 pm

Thanks for your comments, Betty. Let’s connect about CASRA conference – would be great to see everyone.


Paul Barry January 31, 2014 at 9:10 pm

These great insights and strategies can frequently be used with adults as well tho they’re essential for TAY aged individuals. Thanks Wayne.


Wayne February 3, 2014 at 6:09 pm

You’re right Paul – it’s not like these approaches suddenly become invalid at an arbitrary age limit. But, perhaps even more sensitive when young people have their first contacts w/ adult systems.


Letty Jimenez April 17, 2014 at 10:55 pm

Awesome read! Its so funny I came across this article! this week at one of my high school groups I felt myself having a power struggle with a student who views her drug use as a good thing. I found myself getting frustrated and I actually had to take a step back and allow the conversation between the her peers just flow. Some of them were giving amazing feedback and I bit my tongue. After the group I kept thinking about “why don’t they just get it?” I love the statement “meet them where they are at.” I had to think that although she may not be “getting it” at that moment, a trusting relationship is being formed and for right now it works. Thanks Wayne for that great reminder!


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