The Craft Approach: 11 Ways this Powerful Approach Can Help

Are you concerned about your loved ones' substance use?

Have you heard of the CRAFT approach to help families?

CRAFT, the acronym for Community Reinforcement and Family Training, promotes science, kindness, and optimism.

I learned about the CRAFT approach several years ago. It made so much sense to me that families can help their struggling children. It is also a relief to realize you don't have to let go of your child.

Many parents that I've encountered like the approach as well. It gives families options and doesn't promote the one-size-fits-all approach.

You can use the CRAFT tools when your child is in the midst of their substance use. It can also support early recovery.

Parents often give emotional comments when they learn about CRAFT:

Here are some examples.

"I wish I was given the CRAFT information when my child was born."

"I feel that I would have been so much more helpful to my child if I had known about CRAFT sooner."

"I like this so much better than the 'tough love approach.'"

"It was so refreshing to hear professionals talk about the importance of parents and not make us feel like enablers."

What is essential is that CRAFT and other research-based options are made available to any family member concerned about a loved one.

Communication strategies take practice. It can feel uncomfortable, like writing with your left hand. With time, it will feel more comfortable.

Here are 11 ways that CRAFT can help your family:

1) Realize that you have the inner strength that can help.

All parents have strengths that they bring to the table. Think of the 70/30 rule. You already have 70% of what you need to help your child. You are a whole, resourceful, capable, and creative parent. 30% is learning more about substance use and what approach will help your family.

2) Strive to be resilient.

Substance use can be challenging for a parent. Strengthen your resilience by consistent self-care. It is challenging to focus on your child to concentrate on yourself. While it may not seem natural, you will be of more help to your child when you feel less stressed and exhausted. Striving to be resilient can help you when times get tough. Being strong will help you cope during this stressful time.

3) Manage your emotions.

When you feel overwhelmed, you will stay in the negative cycle. When you are aware of your emotions, you have more options to help your child. Self-care can help you feel more balanced. Identify any problem areas. Take time away when needed. Set limits for yourself so that you feel more comfortable.

4) Use open-ended questions when talking with your child.

Questions with yes or no answers can feel like an interrogation. Your son or daughter will feel more defensive and may shut down. Instead, ask questions that open up the conversation.

Some examples might be:

  • Instead of saying, "Did you smoke last night?" say, "How did you manage your smoking last night?"
  • Instead of saying, "Don't you want to change?" say, "What would be different if you stopped drinking?"
  • Instead of saying, "Did you think about trying…?", say, "What have you tried to do to feel better about this?"

5) Acknowledge (compliment) the efforts that your child is making.

You may be struggling with your child's drug or alcohol use. It may feel challenging to have the patience to acknowledge any steps in the right direction. Yet, noticing your child's efforts can make a difference.

Notice their struggles, difficulties, successes, skills, strengths, goals, and values. When their behavior is positive, be sure to notice. Acknowledge any positive efforts on your child's part. It is helpful to "catch them being good" no matter their age.

6) Use the "permission sandwich" when offering information to your child.

It is easy to get into the lecture, confrontational or talking "at" your child mode when you're concerned about their drug or alcohol use. The "permission sandwich" helps your child be more willing to hear what you have to say. When you ask permission first, it is like knocking on your child's door.

It allows your child to invite you into the conversation, which creates a mood shift. Asking first increases your child's interest and involvement in the conversation. You increase the feeling of working together to solve the problem. If they are not interested in your request to talk, do not plow forward. Wait and find a better time.

Timing is everything! When you feel the time is right, BRIEFLY share your information. Then follow-up by checking back that the statement made sense.

The "permission sandwich":

  1. Ask permission to have a conversation;
  2. Briefly stating your information;
  3. Check back to see if your information makes sense to your child.

7) Reflect on your understanding of the conversation.

A reflection is a guess about what your child has said. Rather than ask them a question, repeat what you heard with clear, concise language.

This approach will help give you more information. It will allow you to understand better what your child is going through. There is no downside to a reflection. If you get it wrong, your child can restate what they were saying so that you understand.

8) Practice the 7 Elements of Positive Communication.

These are good reminders for any parent to talk to your child so they will be open to what you are saying.

The seven elements are:

  1. Be brief — Say only what is necessary.

2. Be Specific — Refer to specific behaviors rather than be vague.

3. Be Positive — Describe what you want instead of what you don't want.

4. Label Your Feelings — Calmly state your feelings without blaming your child.

5. Offer an Understanding Statement — More understanding = less defensiveness

6. Take Partial Responsibility — Take responsibility for even a tiny part of the problem.

7. Offer to Help — This includes non-blaming, support which helps solve the problem.

9) Why your child's behavior makes sense.

As strange as it may seem, your child is getting a reward for drug or alcohol use. Have empathy for your child. Take the time to understand why they have chosen to use drugs or alcohol.

Do not take your child's use personally. It is often less about you and more about their feelings when using drugs or alcohol. Increased empathy provides more of a chance to work together with your child.

10) Look for ways to reward your child positively.

Your child has a better chance of changing when you use positive reinforcement. It encourages the behavior you want to see. It is one of the main helping strategies of CRAFT.

Furthermore, it contrasts with detachment and punishment, which are less helpful. It is not the same as enabling. Enabling encourages, consciously or not, drug or alcohol use. By noticing and reinforcing a behavior that you like, there is a better chance of occurring again.

Be sure to reward any behavior by kind words or actions AFTER the behavior has occurred, not BEFORE.

Rewards should be consistent and timely, as well as something that makes sense for you. Here are some ideas on how you can support your child's positive behaviors.

  • a hug
  • time alone
  • a gift card
  • special dinner
  • going to a movie together
  • video game time
  • privileges
  • driving the car
  • a break from chores
  • sleeping in
  • an acknowledgment of what your son or daughter is doing well

Consider something that your child will want. Don't pick something you would appreciate when offering an acknowledgment or reward. Again, make sure your reinforcement is something your child wants.

11) Allow for natural consequences.

Natural consequences can be a powerful way for your child to learn to live a healthier life. Allowing for natural consequences is more helpful than punishment or "enabling."

Use common sense when making decisions about allowing for natural consequences. Keep your child's safety and your comfort level in mind. One example might be not waking your child up for work when they are hungover from the night before. Another might be not calling the school to make excuses for your child's lack of attendance or unfinished work. Again, use your common sense and use what will work for your situation.

CRAFT can help turn a negative situation into a more positive one. I wish I had known about CRAFT when my kids were in the midst of their drug use.

Furthermore, I feel that CRAFT can help your family more than any other approach that I've come across.

Finally, I want to shout out to the Center for Motivation and Change and the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. They had the foresight to realize families need support and science-based tools.

If your son or daughter is struggling with substance use, do look at the CRAFT materials.

Change can happen when you engage in a research-based approach that promotes positivity.

There are millions in recovery. Your child can be there too!

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Cathy Taughinbaugh

Cathy Taughinbaugh

Parent Coach and Author of The Compassion Antidote: A Path to Change for You and Your Child Struggling with Substance Use. Learn more: