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Natural Consequences…or Punishment?

chains on feet

Hopefulin2018 is hoping for some specific phrases or concrete examples to use with her son who is drinking and smoking pot. CRAFT makes sense to her but the fine line between allowing natural consequences and "punishment" continues to feel elusive…

"I'm new to AIR and so grateful I found this site. I've read the book, Beyond Addiction, which introduced me to the CRAFT method, and which eventually led me to this site. I love that the modules are explicit and that I can return to them time and again. However, I still find myself confused for how to apply CRAFT in certain situations, particularly when it comes to rewards, natural consequences, and punishment.

Our son first started using pot at age 13 and has been in treatment twice, partly for social anxiety and depression as well as for substance abuse. He's used pot, alcohol, over the counter drugs, prescription drugs, LSD and whatever he vapes. Now, at age 17 he continues to use pot and alcohol regularly. He even skips class to use and this past October was caught with pot at school. He was suspended for 3 days and we are still waiting to hear from the courts. A few days after being caught he informed us he doesn't plan on stopping the pot use because he doesn't see the harm in it. He clearly doesn't see how it's negatively impacting his life and his relationships with us and his non-using friends. He doesn't want to resume seeing his therapist he's seen for the last three and half years.

My husband and I don't have a problem allowing external natural consequences to happen. Because of his use, his grades are poor, he struggles to get to school on time, and he will have to face the court when that time comes. …a portion of this comment has been removed for punctuality's sake…read full comment here…

The stress and strain of worrying about his use leaves me mentally exhausted and depressed to the point that my thinking gets stuck and feels blank, if that even makes sense. I'm not sure what and how to say things without making it worse. I'm confused and feel paralyzed. The concrete examples of what and how to say things are so helpful."

Changing your behavior and your communication to line up with your Loved One’s day-to-day use/non-use is a lot. CRAFT boils down to a simple set of principles you can apply to all situations in dealing with your son. Applying these principles can be difficult however, and you won’t do it perfectly every time.

The world, and indeed, each moment-in-time can be divided between:

  • When you see use: step away, allow (safe) natural consequences and remove rewards
  • When you don’t see use: step in and reward

BTW: When your ability to think goes away, because of exhaustion, frustration, mind-blowing irritation, or anger, it’s a strong warning you need refueling and calming down. There’s even evidence that these strong emotions affect your physiology and your ability to think rationally or empathetically. So, you first. Whatever you are doing, do a little more. Our Sanctuary is designed to provide a few minutes of solace. If reading helps, take a look at Parenting Teens with Love and Logic: Preparing Adolescents for Responsible Adulthood. Intersperse this book with poems by Mary Oliver or other writers/poets who provide inspiration and gulps of air.

Beyond Addiction is an important book. You and your husband have adjusted your behaviors and communication in a way that lines up with the principles laid out in this book and with CRAFT. Your son gets to feel responsible for bad grades, an unhappy employer, and getting caught with pot at school. This is huge and very difficult to do as a parent. Bravo.

Your question has to do with how to apply natural consequences at home, and the fine line between removing rewards and punishment. The two can look similar and overlap. For instance, taking away the cell phone can be seen as both. It’s a consequence of use. Who pays for the cell phone? If you do, perhaps this stops until your son agrees to go back to the therapist. We had a similar discussion with another parent some time back. Perhaps the cell phone is given or taken away weekly, according to attendance at therapy or another treatment.

The car as reward is a tough one. As you say, you can easily give it and take it away. We have several blog posts that talk about the car. See the topic “car” on the right-hand sidebar of this blog. I keep thinking what could have happened had your son come home drunk AND had been driving. The liability of having a child wreck your car or hurt someone or himself under the influence has to take precedence over using the car as a reward.

When your son came home late and drunk, you reacted in classic CRAFT: “I told him I was glad he was home, but I didn't want to talk while he was drunk and that we would talk about it the next day.” This is terrific. Already, your son must be thinking, Uh-oh, something is up. Where’s the BS I usually get in these moments?

There should be something said the next day, each time he comes home high. Again, easy for me to say, the principles are easy and clear, but hard to do. Script it out.

Perhaps you wait until late afternoon, when your son isn’t hung over (though teens rarely feel hangovers like we know them)….it’s still important to be neutral and distant during the period of hangover earlier in the day.

It doesn’t have to be a huge talk. Perhaps you turn off the TV, turn to him, and say something like:

I’m glad you came home only an hour after curfew. I am so flattened, so worried, when you are not home when you should be. I can hardly breathe. (pause)

You had been drinking. This and the pot are your call. As much as I’d like to, I can’t stop you.

But please don’t scare me. The only thing worse than how I felt last night is if you had been driving. We can’t help you with the car when driving drunk is possible. I’m sorry. When you can convince us you will always drive sober, we will help you with your license. A start would be to return to the therapist or to try something else that helps you explore cutting back. Here are some alternatives. (ideally the list you provide includes a program that uses Adolescent Community Reinforcement Approach). I love you and will do everything I can to help you find your way with these drugs when you’re ready.

Perhaps you save the talk about the cell phone for the next day-after talk.

Removing rewards at home (beyond material rewards) is subtle. Leaving him alone in the room, not joining him in front of the TV, no hugs, smiles, scrunches on the back. You are just neutral. You are not critical, judgmental, or angry. You are dismissive, non-inclusive. It’s the big chill.

Every way you can, you create this divide where everything is warm and rosy in the moment when he’s sober; everything is distant and cold when he’s not. This is the line you try to maintain. This is what you can do. You will need to hold this line through your son’s up and downs…the decisions around the drug use and the drinking are his. You provide the stance that informs his immediate environment at home.

I hope this helps.



In your comments, please show respect for each other and do not give advice. Please consider that your choice of words has the power to reduce stigma and change opinions (ie, "person struggling with substance use" vs. "addict", "use" vs. "abuse"...)

  1. Our son would like to attend a basketball tournament out of state with our church in January. He’s not a basketball player, per se, but the idea of going is exciting for him. Many of the boys going are a good influence on him, although he chooses not to hang out with them outside of basketball practice. A couple of the boys going are trouble for him, and he uses with them. One of these boys is just going as a spectator (to party), and will not be playing with the team or rooming with the team. He uses with this boy regularly.

    In reading Beyond Addiction, it states that we need to create opportunities that compete with the benefits he gets for using, so awhile ago we told him we will support him going to this basketball tournament and other things that are positive influences for him. He’s been going to basketball practices, which we said he needs to do if we pay for him to go. When he returns from practices, he’s always is a better mood partly because of the exercise he gets – which he doesn’t get otherwise, other than when he practices his drums. This past weekend, he found out about the boy going as a spectator and our son started saying he hates basketball and he wants to go just to “support the team” but not play. We told him we would not support that. It’s clear his intentions are to party with the 18 year old boy. We’ve already paid for the registration but not his plane ticket. We told him we need to know his intentions before we buy the plane ticket. We can be reimbursed for the registration fee ($300) because I bought insurance on it. The insurance will also cover the travel expense should we need to pull out.
    Do we still support this opportunity? It will be carefully chaperoned, and there will be many parents there. My husband or I may even go, but not certain if we can. However, there is the risk, and it’s likely, that he will use especially since the boy he uses with will be there. But, there is a chance he’ll reconnect with some of the other boys that could be a positive thing. How would CRAFT suggest we view this? I feel like if we take it away that he will see it as a punishment and us trying to “control” him again. Even if he goes to practice, I suspect now he is doing that so he can go to party. If so, he risks the consequences of being eliminated from the tournament, and possibly even eliminating the team from the tournament. I’ve heard from another parent that some of the boys on the team are worried about this. He looks at everything we do as a way of “controlling” his use and his response to any boundaries we draw is classic blame shifting.

    Our 14 year old daughter is frustrated and worried about her brother, but she also doesn’t understand why we don’t “punish” him. We’ve tried to explain to her our approach with CRAFT and reasons for it. We worry about her well being as well. She refuses to go to counseling because I think she associates it with the issues her brother has. We’re ping ponging back and forth on what to do. Can you please offer some insight and language for us to think about?

    We’ve used what you’ve suggested previously and it is helps us see things more clearly and we communicate more effectively. I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep saying thank you for this site and your support. I’m hopeful there’s a way out of the vicious cycle we’ve been on for the last four years.

    1. Dear Hopefulin18. CRAFT definitely asks the family to think up and put in place positive experiences that compete with drug use. A chaperoned basketball tournament sound like a good example of this, even though it’s not a 100% full proof. Nothing really is. I’m reminded of the new pair of jeans a father gave his daughter. Even without a receipt, she was able to return it for money to buy drugs.

      The basketball tournament is a big multi-day event so it is less a reward than a positive activity that competes with the use. Your son may use some, but probably less than he would in his regular life. I would agree that he has to practice and play for the money you are spending. The good feelings from exercising is also a good reminder that non-using activities can feel good.

      “Son, it’s good to see you participating in the basketball practices. Thank you for trying this. If you’re willing to continue playing with the team, we are happy to pay your way. This is the only way this can work. Let us know quickly what you choose to do.”

      I would alert the chaperones that there are bad influences in the mix and that your son is easily pulled in, that he needs to participate as part of the deal. I suppose you will have to keep the details of “bad” vague or risk being denied your son an invite.

      Your son most certainly knows that using pot or drinking will be prohibited during the trip. It doesn’t have to come from you. You don’t need to remind him. Let the community of players and parents, and the experience, be the teacher.

      1. Thank you so much for your response and the clarity. It’s been difficult to create opportunities that compete with his drug use because our son is so adverse to anything we suggest. He even passes up offers to take him to eat. He’s pretty angry with us since we threw his pot out (twice last week), and seems to be using more just to spite us, but we’ll let the community of players, parents and the experience be the teacher.

  2. We just found pot in my son’s backpack. This is the second time in the last 3 weeks. When we found it 3 weeks ago we told him if he brought in on our property we would call the cops, which would mean a second charge since he was busted at school. Now we know about CRAFT. Would CRAFT support us calling the cops? Should we give him a choice-treatment or we call the cops? What to do?

    1. You may be horrified to hear this, but we condone fishing through a Loved One’s belongings to see what’s up.

      This is not a fair fight. You need information. The evidence gained from searching however is just information. It informs what is happening with your Loved One. It is not to be used as punishment. The same holds true for drug testing. It is part of the story and informs how you should behave.

      The reality is that your son is still using pot. Okay, we knew that. Yes, he brought it home after being warned that you would call the police.

      If he were dealing drugs or if the drug was anything other than marijuana, and he had repeatedly been warned about endangering the family, this would be a different situation.

      Normally I would agree that you need to make good on any threat. This is a big one however. Let’s see if using CRAFT, which would have you respond in smaller, more nuanced ways, works better. I agree with your earlier statement. Talking treatment and help all the time, gets you nowhere. It makes the Loved One numb to your words. Use the power of your behavior to reinforce non-use and moments when he is high.

      1. “It’s not to be used as punishment.” I never thought about any of this with that perspective or that finding his pot serves as information. I can see now how my intention in finding the pot was to use it as punishment to force him to stop. I know punishment doesn’t work and I know I can’t force him to stop, so this is a big aha moment for me. Thank you.

        He was extremely belligerent last night, calling us all kinds of demeaning names, etc. We remained calm and used CRAFT the best we could, although we should have ended the conversation as he continued to demean us. We have chosen not to call the cops, but told him we want him to start seeing his therapist again. He refuses to do that. We will continue to use CRAFT in hopes that it works. He is so defensive and angry. I’m understanding better through this site how important maintaining communication with my Loved One is. I can’t thank you enough.

  3. Thank you! This absolutely helps. The phrasing you suggest helps me better see how to address his use without fear of pushing his thinking in the wrong direction. For now, we’ll keep his driver’s license and driving off the table. It makes sense for our situation and is consistent with what we’ve told him before. We pay for the service for his cell phone, which is very important to him. If I use paying for his cell phone as leverage for him to see his therapist again, is that being manipulative? He wasn’t being honest with his therapist about his substance use before she released seeing him on an as-needed basis, although he does like her and so do we.

    I can’t thank you enough for all you offer on this site and for your response to my question. I