Motivational Interviewing for Teen Substance Abuse


When a teenager is struggling with substance abuse, they may be in denial that they need help. This is a very common problem when trying to help those with substance abuse issues. How do you help someone who doesn’t think that they need help?

Motivational interviewing for adolescent substance abuse can be a useful tool to help your teen understand their ambivalence to change and to stop using drugs.

Let’s talk about what motivational interviewing is, why motivational interviewing helps teens and the strategy behind it.

What is Motivational Interviewing?

Motivational interviewing is a therapeutic technique based on the assumptions that oftentimes the greatest barrier to change is the ambivalence towards change. Through the MI principles, a practitioner can explore the values, motivations and beliefs behind a teen’s behavior. It is a very gentle counseling method that’s particularly useful with adolescent substance abuse.

Motivational Interviewing’s effectiveness is due to the fact that it helps a troubled teen search for their own internal motivation to change.

Why Motivational Interviewing Helps Teens

According to the Betty Ford center, “Though premature dropout from treatment happens with adults, as many as 50% of teens and young adults with substance use disorders do not complete treatment.” Oftentimes this is because most teenager’s involuntarily enter treatment and their internal motivation to change was never elicited.

The truth is, most teens who struggle with substance abuse have a part of them that wants to stop using drugs. With Motivational Interviewing, a counselor can begin to explore the parts of the teen that want to stop using drugs, and why there is ambivalence to do so at the same time. Many teens find the “counseling style” of MI to be inviting, validating and helpful.

Motivational Interviewing is effective with teens because it also encourages a thoughtful process before taking actions; therefore reducing impulsive decision making and risky behavior.


OARS are the 4 strategies behind Motivational Interviewing. These strategies dictate the counseling style and overall approach to an MI conversation.

Open Ended Questions

By never asking questions that elicit a “yes” or “no” response, the counselor is able to open up a greater, much deeper conversation with their troubled teen client. This is also a great technique when working with teens who are very shut down and don’t talk much.


It can be easy to forget this simple concept, but every time we open our mouths to say something, we do so to elicit some kind of change. Most commonly, when we talk about our own experiences, we’re looking for validation and understanding of ourselves. A fundamental technique of MI is affirming the other’s experience. Statements like “I hear you…” and “that makes sense” can go a long way in helping a troubled teen feel understood and encouraged to share their values and motivations behind their substance abuse behavior.

Reflective Listening

Reflective listening means that after the teen has shared something, we reflect their statement back to them with extra insight. This is a great strategy to make sure that the teen client feels understood. It can also be an opportunity to clarify anything in their communication that may have been misunderstood.


This is the portion of MI where a therapist will repeat back the most important highlights of the conversation, helping the troubled teen to think about next steps. The emphasis here is on highlighting the ways that the teen really does want to change, and maybe even some ways that substance abuse is making their life more difficult. In the summary stage, we can help the troubled teen begin to think of future goals and the possibility for change.

Teenage Crisis Intervention Program

There are also groups for teens with substance abuse issues that use motivational interviewing techniques. Because peer influence can be such a powerful motivational force during adolescence, finding a support group of other teens can have extra impact to help them change. As a therapeutic boarding school for girls, we specialize in helping young women in high school ages 14-18 to find the internal motivation to change their lives for the futures that they deserve.

If your teen is struggling and you’re in search of a teen crisis intervention program, ask the specialists how they elicit internal change in their students. To learn how we do this at Greenbrier Academy, give us a call at 1-877-788-8422.

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