Motivational Interviewing in Adolescent Substance Use Treatment

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Motivational interviewing is an evidence-based behavioral therapy technique that helps motivate individuals to make positive behavioral changes. The technique has proven effective for the treatment of substance use disorders.

At Guardian Recovery, we believe in the efficacy of this specific approach, and we are dedicated to providing each teen with a comprehensive program of therapeutic intervention. This technique generally takes place in a one-on-one therapy setting. At Guardian Recovery, we value the autonomy of each of our clients and believe that healing should be considered a collaborative effort between the client and the clinical team. Clients build rapport with their therapists as they work together to develop attainable and personalized treatment goals. The collaboration lends itself to a trusting and open environment and is often more beneficial than more confrontational styles of therapy. To learn more about motivational interviewing and how we incorporate this technique into our comprehensive adolescent treatment programs, contact us today.

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What Is the Goal of Motivational Interviewing in Teen Substance Use Treatment? 

There are multiple  goals of motivational interviewing in regards to teen substance use treatment. 

Goals of motivational interviewing include: (1) 

  • Gaining insight on any discrepancies that the client may have regarding substance use.  
  • Resolving their ambivalence to change.
  • Promoting each teen’s motivation to change any behaviors related to their substance use. 

Motivational Interviewing in Holistic Adolescent Substance Use Disorder (SUD) Treatment

This therapeutic method was originally developed to help people overcome substance use disorders.. Since it was first developed it has found to have a variety of other benefits, including helping individuals struggling with anxiety disorders, unresolved trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (which often coincide with substance use). 

Benefits of motivational interviewing include: (2) 

  • Helping teens build a higher level of self-confidence.
  • Teaching teens how to trust their ability to make positive decisions on their own.
  • Teaching teens how to take responsibility for themselves and their own actions.
  • Reducing the risk of relapse or of a return to old, self-destructive behaviors.
  • Showing tees that if they put their energy towards something, they are capable of achieving it.
  • Teaching clients how to make the most out of their substance use recovery experience.

The Key Qualities of Motivational Interviewing

There are four key qualities of motivational interviewing outlined by the developers of the technique, these include:  (3) 

  1. The licensed therapist does not direct the client on which actions to take, but instead guides the conversation so the therapist and the client can come to a collaborative conclusion.
  2. Motivational interviewing is geared towards motivating individuals  to make changes that are going to benefit them in the long run. Teens  become empowered to make decisions that are in their own best interest. They learn how to take positive control of their own lives.
  3. This therapeutic technique honors the natural process of change while encouraging teens to further develop and maintain a sense of autonomy.
  4. This therapeutic technique avoids confrontation, warning, directing and the offering of unsolicited advice. Rather than say, “If you fail to do this, then this will happen,” the therapist might say something more along the lines of, “What do you think is going to happen if this doesn’t change? Will it bother you if that does happen; why or why not?” The goal is to facilitate a healthy conversation that encourages clients to make their own decisions.

Techniques & Approaches to Motivational Interviewing

When motivational interviewing is used in a substance use  treatment setting, several techniques are actively employed.

Teen addiction motivational interviewing techniques include: (4) 

  • Using open-ended questions – When addressing the client the therapist uses questions that encourage deep thought and contemplation. Rather than asking questions that warrant a simple “yes” or “no” answer, the therapist asks personal questions that encourage the client to dig deeper. “How have you tried to improve your quality of life in the past?” “What areas of life would you like to improve upon?”
  • Using affirmations – During every stage of the recovery process we focus on constantly affirming our clients on what they are doing well. It is crucial that people who are new to recovery have positive reinforcement that they are making strides, doing their best and succeeding in staying sober one day at a time.
  • Reflective listening techniques – This is an important part of motivational interviewing. Rather than simply nodding in agreement as the client shares his or her personal experiences, the therapist reflects on what is being said in order to better understand it and show the client that they are listening attentively.
  • Providing summaries at the end of the therapy session – The therapist might also provide summaries throughout the therapy session by recollecting what the client has said, making connections between two distinct parts of the discussion and smoothly transitioning from one subject to another if the conversation becomes derailed.

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How Does Motivational Interviewing Help Teens in Their Recovery Journey?

There are numerous benefits that go hand-in-hand with motivational interviewing. 

Motivational Interviewing is especially beneficial for teens who:

  • Experience a high level of ambivalence – A client might not care whether or not they maintain sobriety. Ambivalence is extremely detrimental to long-term recovery. It is crucial that this ambivalence is gone by the time a client leaves treatment. At Guardian Recovery, we work to show our clients how fun and fulfilling abstinence can be so that they will strive to maintain their recovery.
  • Lack self-confidence and a sense of self-worth – Teens often doubt their ability to change. They might succumb to negative and self-destructive thoughts such as, “This is just the way I am.” Or, “I’ll never be able to stay abstinent, no matter what I do.” We focus on breaking these unhealthy patterns of thinking and replacing them with thoughts and behaviors that are going to benefit them.
  • Experience a lack of desire to stay sober long-term – Many of our clients come to us with the fear of staying abstinent for the remainder of their lives. We teach them how to take things one day at a time and eventually transition from fearing abstinence to embracing abstinence.
  • Don’t understand why or how changing their current circumstances will be beneficial – Substance use is a condition of denial. Many teens who engage in substance use sincerely believe that things “aren’t that bad,” or that they can “quit anytime they want, they just don’t want to.” We help our clients understand how detrimental substance use can be while helping them shift away from a nonchalant perspective.

Motivational Interviewing & Adolescent Mental Health

Motivational interviewing has been found to be effective in the treatment of adolescent mental health and substance use concerns. Research has found that motivational interviewing is effective in treating substance use disorders in teens and aiding with teen rehab relapse prevention. (5) 

Frequently Asked Questions

Below is a list of curated questions regarding motivational interviewing for adolescent substance use treatment. 

How Does Motivational Interviewing Help With My Child’s Substance Use?

Motivational interviewing helps children learn the importance of change, address their ambivalence regarding it, and learn techniques to encourage them to stop engaging in substance use. 

Can Parents or Family Be Involved in Motivational Interviewing Sessions?

Your child’s therapist will keep you updated and involved throughout every step of the treatment process. For those parents wanting to express their concerns and develop adaptive communication and coping techniques, family therapy may be beneficial. 

Can Motivational Interviewing Treat My Child’s Mental Health & Behavior?

Yes, motivational interviewing has also been found to be effective in treating mental health and behavioral concerns. (6) 

Can My Child Continue to Receive Motivational Interviewing Support After Completing Treatment?

Yes, Guardian Recovery can work with you and your family to help provide you with continued support and resources following your child’s discharge from their treatment program. 

Are There Any Potential Drawbacks Associated With Motivational Interviewing?

While asking open-ended questions promotes productive conversations, it is easy for teens to feel like they are being  interrogated during motivational interviewing. Our trained counselors will work with your child to ensure that there is a strong therapeutic relationship, and rapport, in order to minimize this drawback.  

How Can I Know if My Child Is Responding Positively?

Your child’s therapist will keep you updated, throughout the entire treatment process, regarding your teens response to treatment. 

How Can Family Support Progress at Home?

The best way that families can support their teens’ progress at home is by being open to applying and implementing the techniques discussed in session into your family’s everyday routine. 

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If your teen has been engaging in substance use, or is finding it difficult to control their substance use, treatment may be beneficial. At Guardian Recovery, we utilize motivational interviewing techniques to help our clients feel heard and understood as they learn how to make healthy decisions. We work to ensure that our admissions process is as seamless as possible. One of our Treatment Advisors is ready to speak with you and guide you through our simple admissions process. Ask about our free, no obligation insurance benefits check to help determine which of our treatment options is covered by your health insurance plan. To learn more about our comprehensive, therapeutic adolescent  recovery programs, contact us today.


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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.


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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave


Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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