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How to Help Your Child Make a Plan for Lasting Recovery

By Martha McLaughlin

When your child transitions from a treatment program to aftercare and a return to normal routines, it can be exciting and scary for both of you. It’s a time of new beginnings and hope but also a time of challenge. Actively preparing for the challenges can help reduce them and set the tone for recovery success.

Preparing the Environment

Before your child returns home from residential treatment, you can help set up their continuing recovery by preparing the home environment. It’s best to remove or lock up all drugs and alcohol, no matter which substances were involved in the original addiction. It’s not uncommon for patients in recovery to substitute a new addiction for an old one, so all psychoactive substances should be treated with caution.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse stresses that, because drug abuse changes the function of the brain, drug cravings can be triggered easily.1 Cravings are strongest in early recovery, and it’s wise to avoid all unnecessary triggers. For example, if your child used drugs and alcohol at home and a particular chair reminds him of use, do some strategic furniture removal or rearranging. Just be sure to consult your child first, as some aspects of the environment might be substance use triggers while others give a sense of familiarity and safety.

Setting Goals and Taking Steps to Reach Them

Mother and daughter with counselorAs soon as possible after active treatment, sit down with your child and develop a recovery plan. This is especially important for children living at home, but even adult children can benefit from input and accountability.

It’s a good idea to put the plan in writing, which minimizes the possibility of miscommunication and memory issues. The plan should be clear but not overwhelming, and there should be a contingency to revisit it on a regular basis to reaffirm what’s working and change anything that isn’t.

The basic elements of a recovery plan include goals, steps your child will take to meet them and rewards or consequences for specific actions. You may also want to specify what you’ll do to help.

Here are a few common recovery goals — with possible steps for success — you might consider:

  • Build a support system – Steps for building a support system might include attending regular counseling sessions and support group meetings. Your child might agree to attend a certain number, and you might commit to providing transportation or making sure mealtimes or other family activities don’t interfere. Adult children who don’t live at home may agree to call or text you regularly or to allow their counselor to tell you whether or not they’ve missed appointments.
  • Develop healthy habits – To meet the goal of developing healthy habits, your child might agree to get to bed by a certain hour and avoid junk food. You may commit to keeping healthy food in the house or reducing noise levels after bedtime. If your child doesn’t live at home, you may decide to swap healthy recipes or take regular walks together if you live nearby.
  • Avoid relapse triggers – The steps for avoiding relapse triggers will differ depending on individual circumstances but should involve concrete plans for reducing exposure to people, places and activities associated with substance use. This often involves making new friends and finding a new peer group. Your child may decide to join a club or take a new route home from school or work.
  • Manage stress – Steps for managing stress may include regular journaling, meditation or breathing exercises.

It’s important to be consistent in following through with rewards and consequences so be sure the ones you set are reasonable for both you and your child. Rewards may include things like gift cards or dinner out at a favorite restaurant. Consequences may include loss of privileges. Both may grow over time, with greater rewards or consequences associated with repeated actions.

Addressing the Possibility of Relapse

Relapse is never welcome but is often part of a recovery journey. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) suggests that patients make a list of early warning signs that might signal trouble, such as anxiety, irritability, avoiding others and feeling disconnected. These signs should trigger specific actions, such as talking to a counselor, doing relaxation exercises and engaging in enjoyable activities. SAMHSA also suggests creating a list of signs that things aren’t improving, with an accompanying list of actions, such as taking three days off from all responsibilities and making plans for getting help quickly if symptoms worsen.2

When designing a recovery plan, be clear about the steps you’ll take if your child relapses. Depending on circumstances, actions may involve increased counseling or even returning to an intensive treatment program. Recovery is not always a linear process. But when parents and children work together as a team, the ups and downs can be minimized, and early recovery can become a time of joy and strengthened relationships.


1Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, July 2016.

2Action Planning for Prevention and Recovery.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, January 2002.

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