Courageous Intervention

Dustin Perkins | Nov 2, 2009

It was another one of those nightmare scenarios for a youth pastor, which always seem to happen when I go out of town (for another, see my article about ministering to abusive families). When I returned from my trip, I found that I had received a call from one of our students parents that he and his wife caught their teenager (well call him Chad Johnson) in a lie which revealed that he was not only abusing drugs, but that he received his latest supply from another youth group member during Sundays church service! I could only offer silence as I stood in absolute shock, hearing those words streaming from my voicemail. I immediately called Chads parents for a more complete description, called my supervisor to relay everything I had been told, and then wrote up an incident report to fill in the rest of the staff (see below for an example incident report).

I called up the mother of the other student (well call him Kyle Smith), who was accused of dealing the drugs to Chad outside during the service. She didnt believe the accusation, but suggested the best idea that emerged from that harrowing evening: Lets do an intervention and get to the bottom of this. We set a time, gathered the families, and dove into what would be one of the most raw, tiring, and blessed events of my ministry career.

As you may be painfully aware, Chad and Kyle are not atypical youth group kids. Drug and alcohol abuse is an insidious trend which in many ways has become glorified in the media as a normal experience of adolescent rebellion. This article will outline the issues surrounding addiction and drug abuse, illustrate the necessity of performing courageous interventions, and offer advice from experts on how to do successful interventions.


Given that adolescents are on a journey of discovering their sense of individual identity, autonomy, and belonging, they may challenge the accepted norms of their familys world in an effort to separate themselves from that system to become both independent and interdependent adults. This journey often brings with it much pain and confusion, as everything the adolescent has held dear is shaken to its very core. Research has shown that drug abuse stems primarily from a desire to relieve pain, but the harsh reality is that drugs often cause more pain in the long run, exposing users to the vicious cycle of addiction.

Of course, not every teenager who uses drugs or alcohol could be clinically classified as addicted, but even casual users tend to consume mind-altering substances for the same reason as addicts: to escape pain. Such escapist behavior is the hallmark of the cycle of addiction, a well-known and accepted model to explain the self-perpetuating nature of addiction. This cycle has many different incarnations, but the basic gist looks like this:

addiction cycle

Heres how the cycle works: [[Narcanon (web site). The Cycle of Addiction. Accessed 10/22/2009.]] First, the user feels serious pain and attempts to relieve it by using a drug. Substance use in most families and communities is an embarrassing and unaccepted behavior, so after the high wears off the user experiences dissatisfaction when their pain comes rushing back and the guilt and shame over their actions set in. The user often deceives those closest to them to hide their shame, and then tries to take care of the problem on their own through moral resolve and self-determination. These attempts usually fail, which results in more pain and thus more substance use, starting the cycle all over again. (For more helpful resources on addiction, please see Month 4 of the Urban Youth Ministry Self-Care Toolkit from FYI).

Clayton Barbeau, in his book How to Raise Parents, describes the special impact that substance abuse has on teens:

[Substance] abuse is a disastrous choice for anyone at any age. It simply has an added dimension of tragedy [when] the [abuse] starts in adolescence. The major task of adolescence is to put yourself together, to come to know yourself as a whole person. But when youngsters take alcohol or drugs, addling their thoughts with mind-altering substances, they disintegrate and fragment themselves. Theyre pulling themselves apart instead of becoming whole, and that can have only unfortunate consequences for their future. They create more problems for themselvesat a time when they already have enough. [[Clayton Barbeau, How to Raise Parents: Questions and Answers for Teens and Parents (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987), 149.]]


Most users, and teenage users in particular, lack the insight necessary to see the cyclical nature of their addiction and will attempt to minimize their behavior to those concerned about them and even convince themselves that their use is not a big deal. It falls to the caring adults close to the addict to reveal the true nature of their behavior and how it is hurting them and those they love because the addiction cycle is fueled by secrecy. Briefly defined, intervention is presenting reality to a person out of touch with it in a receivable way. [[Vernon Johnson, Intervention: How to Help Someone Who Doesnt Want Help (Minneapolis: Johnson Institute Books, 1986), 61.]] Intervention provides three essential starting points for recovery:

1. Confession for the individual

When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day longmy strength was sapped as in the heat of summer, Psalm 32:3-4

The pain of silence eventually becomes unendurable, but as the rest of this psalm teaches, confession opens the possibility for protection, love, and forgiveness. The secrecy and shame of addiction will often necessitate that the user be provoked into this healing discipline by undeniable, inescapable facts. Hoping it will all blow over often enables the addiction to continue to keep its victim sick and hurting.

2. Awareness for the family

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ, Galatians 6:2

In order for a family to carry burdens, it must first see the burdens to be carried. Many parents and pastors live in willful ignorance about a loved ones addiction, wanting to believe the best about them. However, that rosy and increasingly unrealistic picture of their beloved congregant, friend, or child keeps them from being able to help. (See the extra resources section below for signs that someone is using drugs) Chads father recently told me that our intervention not only confirmed his suspicions about his sons drug use, but made it truly hit home with his family. Armed with awareness, they have been working to help their child in ways they never could while they lived in ignorance.

3. Healing for the community

Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed, James 5:16

The Bible consistently teaches that secret sin not only harms the individual committing it, but also contaminates the community with which the individual has been covenanted. When our kids suffer, we all suffer. As community leaders, youth pastors cannot pass off the problem to the users parents and wish them luck. We need to help parents and students tell the truth and address the problem at hand.

I know from experience that the typical first inclination in confronting addiction is to sweep it under the rug in the interest of saving face for the family and the ministry. But Kingdom living calls for courageous intervention, and all of us have the tools to do it.


There are great resources available for learning intervention skills, and below is a concise introduction on intervention compiled from several of those sources. [[The most complete single source I found was Vernon Johnsons Intervention: How to Help Someone Who Doesnt Want Help (Minneapolis: Johnson Institute Books, 1986).]] You can also check out the list of helpful web sites and bibliography below for more information on drugs, intervention, and treatment options.

What NOT to do

  • Panictake time to clear your head before doing anything
  • Accuse without facts to back it upthe victim will almost always deny their use. Make sure that your confrontation can withstand the users denial and excuses.
  • Punish without an agreement in placemake the consequences clear and expected
  • Deny the obviousif you see signs of abuse, ask about it
  • Pretend the problem is simple and painlessaddiction recovery will be a marathon, not a sprint
  • Get angry or belittle the victimalienation will only push them further away from you
  • Load on the guiltthe pain of shame can drive them back to addiction
  • Keep the focus on yourself (how could you do this to us?)focusing on your needs could easily distract you from theirs

Steps to Success in Intervention

1. Examine

Anyone faced with the necessity of confronting a user who is close to them will encounter a variety of emotions: anger, resentment, frustration, helplessness, loneliness, hurt, embarrassment, guilt, and more. An intervener must take stock of these emotions and work to ensure they do not get in the way of your intervention process. Also every person confronting a user must be certain of their personal stance on alcohol and drug use to present a solid and confident case. Any wishy-washy position will give the user another excuse to keep using.

2. Prepare

Recruit a team of interveners who are strong, meaningful influences in the users life, and who appreciate the cyclical nature and life-or-death seriousness of addiction as well as the fact that the user cannot think or reason clearly while in the midst of it. Each team member should recall and write specific facts (rather than conjecture or suspicion) to paint a detailed picture about the users behavior and how it has affected the people around them. Parents should definitely be on the team, being the primary shapers of a young persons heart; you can also include a pastor, small group leader, Sunday School teacher, therapist, or school counselor. If the team members need more knowledge to participate fully, you can refer them to Johnsons book (previously noted) or even this article for an introduction. One of the most important factors for the team is unity among members about the necessity of intervention.

3. Rehearse

Establish a chairperson who will facilitate the meeting to keep it focused and calm. Rehearse how you will begin the intervention. Go over the facts that each team member has submitted and then determine in what order the facts will be presented. In your rehearsal, someone should play the user and respond to the facts. The entire team ought to prepare for the user to react with defensiveness, protests of innocence, antagonism, sarcasm, and most likely, lies. Finally, agree upon how you will close the intervention, especially what treatment options you have prepared together.

4. Deliver

Gather the team at a time and place that will ensure the utmost privacy and surprise, but the least interruption. For example, a good time could be when they first get home from school or return from church or youth group (and make sure everyones cell phone is turned off!). Deliver the opening, present the facts, deal with any surprises, and help the user into treatment as soon as possible. Heres an example opening statement: Were all here because we care about you and want to help. This is going to be difficult for you and for us, but one of the requests I have to start out with is that you give us the chance to talk and promise to listen, however hard that may be. We know its not going to be easy for the next little while. Would you help us by just listening? [[Vernon Johnson, Intervention, 81.]]

5. Follow Through

Do everything you can to discourage future use by helping parents to apply memorable but sensible consequences (for some creative and effective ones, see chapter 5 of Scott Sells Parenting Your Out-of-Control Teenager). [[Sells, Scott, Parenting Your Out-of-Control Teenager: 7 Steps to Reestablish Authority & Reclaim Love (New York: St. Martins Press, 2001), 192-215.]] At the very least, their access to money, transportation, privacy, and any drug (legal or illegal) should be drastically limited and monitored.

As a youth worker, you may be the one to organize the intervention or perhaps just be a member of the team. But no matter what your involvement, its helpful to be as informed and prepared as possible to courageously intervene and keep the students you and God love from hurting themselves and their families any more.


Kyle caught some pretty severe consequences at home, and Chad was admitted into a months-long rehabilitation program to address both his drug abuse and depression. The consequences of these students indiscretions are still reverberating through their families and the church. Our youth ministry established new rules and consequences to more consistently pay attention to students whereabouts. Both families went through a serious wake-up call.

But Kyle has started to be more honest with his mother and severed his relationship with a local drug dealer, and Chads parents have been working hard to understand their sons depression and are closer than ever to knowing how to address his deepest issues. When Chad got a weekend pass from rehab to visit the church, the youth leadership poured out their love to him, which brought him to tears.

This intervention was costly, hard, and tiring. And it made a real difference. It takes courage to confront, but the potential fruit in the end makes it worth the cost.

Action Points:

  • Immediately dispose of the idea that addiction could never happen to you or your ministry. Thats what everyone (including me) thought before it did happen to someone they love.
  • Build a rapport and communication protocol with your supervisor so you can report any situation to him/her immediately.
  • Establish a form for incident reporting and save it somewhere public so supervisors and staff can easily refer to it if needed. Heres an example you can adapt to begin making your own incident reports.
  • Create a resource list of local counselors and rehabilitation programs that treat adolescents and drug addiction, or find someone in your church who can make referrals.
  • Think about how you can have a safety first mindset and closely monitor the whereabouts of every teen in the ministry without hovering. Does your ministry have a clear set of rules and consequences, or perhaps a check-in procedure? How do you track where kids are and keep them in adult-supervised areas?


1. EXAMPLE INCIDENT REPORT (25 kb pdf file)

2. Signs a teenager could be abusing drugs [[Collected from Scott Sells Parenting Your Out-of-Control Teenager, Neil Bernsteins How to Keep Your Teenager Out of Trouble and What to Do If You Cant, and Testing Your Teen for Illicit Drugs: Information for Parents a pamphlet published by the American Academy of Pediatrics.]]

  1. Alcohol, smoke, or other chemical odors on their breath or clothing (sometimes excessive use of breath mints, cologne, or deodorant is a sign)
  2. Obvious intoxication, dizziness, unreasonably bloodshot eyes, or bizarre behavior
  3. Changes in dress and grooming
  4. Changes in choice of friends; increased avoidance of adults
  5. Frequent arguments, irritability, sudden mood changes, and unexplained violent actions
  6. Increased deception and lying
  7. Decreased motivation, or looking run-down, depressed, or suicidal
  8. Changes in eating and sleeping patterns, frequent fatigue or sleeping in class
  9. Loss of interest in or giving up positive activities
  10. Truancy, falling grades, or getting in trouble at school
  11. Runaway and delinquent behavior (missing items like cash, valuables, alcohol, or cigarettes)
  12. Suicide attempts

3. Helpful Resources: The National Alliance on Mental Illness has programs to teach families and community leaders about depression and other mental illnesses, which can be an underlying factor in your students drug abuse

Drug abuse recovery programs

  •, Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are 12-step programs which help addicts cope with the underlying emotional and spiritual pain which often drives drug abuse
  • Celebrate Recovery is a Christian 12-step program with locations all over the country that ties the 12 steps to biblical principles and the Beatitudes
  • Al-Anon and Alateen are for helping families of alcoholics, with the latter focusing on creating support systems for teenagers who are usingParenting web sites that focus on drug abuse
  • includes information about treatment facilities and how to have conversations about drugs with your family
  • short, easy-to-understand articles on dealing with defiant behavior in adolescents
  • The National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information, a web portal of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration containing tons of helpful, family-oriented drug abuse prevention web sites

Web sites for teens

  • The National Institute on Drug Abuses site reaching out to teenagers, including games, articles, blogs, and more, all aimed at educating teens about the dangers of drug abuse
  • The Office of National Drug Control Policys site which includes videos, testimonials, and information from MTV celebrity Dr. Drew on the dangers of drug and alcohol experimentation and addiction

At-home drug testing resource

Great print resources on addiction and intervention

  • Barbeau, Clayton C. How to Raise Parents: Questions and Answers for Teens and Parents. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987.
  • Barun, Ken and Bashe, Philip. How to Keep the Children You Love Off Drugs. New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988.
  • Bernstein, Neil I. How to Keep Your Teenager Out of Trouble and What to Do If You Cant. New York: Workman Publishing, 2001.
  • Johnson, Vernon E. Intervention: How to Help Someone Who Doesnt Want Help. Minneapolis: Johnson Institute Books, 1986.
  • Knight, John R. Testing Your Teen for Illicit Drugs: Information for Parents (pamphlet). Chicago: American Academy of Pediatrics, 2003.
  • Linderman, Mike. The Teen Whisperer: How to Break through the Silence and Secrecy of Teenage Life. New York: Collins, 2007.
  • Ohlschlager, George and Shadoan, J. Mark. Alcoholism, Substance Abuse, and Other Addictions: A Comprehensive, Christian Understanding. Christian Counseling Today, 16 (1). American Academy of Christian Counselors. Pp. 12-18
  • Reisser, Paul C. Teen Health: Raising Physically & Emotionally Healthy Teens. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1997.
  • Sells, Scott P. Parenting Your Out-of-Control Teenager: 7 Steps to Reestablish Authority & Reclaim Love. New York: St. Martins Press, 2001.
Dustin Perkins

Dustin is a former (and future) pastor who recently graduated from Fuller Seminary with a Master of Divinity in Youth, Family, and Culture. He spent four years as a youth pastor in California and now currently resides in Dallas, Texas, working with an organization that connects mentally ill and chronically homeless people to permanent housing.

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