Module 9: working with young people on AOD issues: learner's workbook

7.2 Problem-solving and setting goals

Page last updated: 2004

Problem-solving techniques are an essential part of working with young people with AOD-related concerns. While such techniques may often be used to assist a young person to take action with regard to their drug use, problem-solving approaches can also be applied in the reduction of drug-related harm. For problem-solving techniques to be of value, the young person has to have some level of concern about the perceived problem. The stage of readiness for change will have an impact on the timing and approach a worker might take in regard to using problem-solving strategies.

Problems – What problems?
Problem-solving styles
Problem-solving training
Problem-solving worksheet
Applying problem-solving skills

Problems – What problems?


Question - Drawing on the information presented earlier in this module, what are some of the factors that workers need to be aware of when using a problem-solving approach with young people in the AOD context?

Problem-solving styles

Young people vary in the manner in which they approach problems and make decisions. They may have good decision-making (coping mechanisms) styles that may sometimes be helpful, yet at other times be potentially harmful.

Problem-solving approaches can be influenced by a range of factors such as young person's developmental stage, the example set by parents or significant others and personal beliefs. AOD use can also influence a person's problem-solving ability. For example, if a young person is intoxicated, clear decisions are less likely. As well, if a young person is dependent upon a substance, it is possible that their decision-making style will be more compulsive.

Workers can assist young people with their problem solving by helping them to identify their style of decision-making and by exploring their strengths and deficits. Past experiences of problems faced, decisions made and the consequences can also be explored.Top of page

Problem-solving training

Assisting a young person to develop problem-solving strategies is central to working through the process of change with them. Whether a young person is considering the possibility of change, actually attempting to change or trying to maintain change in their drug use, problem-solving training is an important part of the process.

Problem-solving training aims to help the young person to:
  • recognise when a problem exists
  • generate a range of possible solutions
  • decide on the most appropriate option and determine a plan for enacting it
  • evaluate the effectiveness of the selected option.

Problem-solving worksheet

A useful tool for working with young people through the process of problem-solving and decision-making has been developed by Jarvis, Tebbutt and Mattick (1995). It can also be used for young people to work through on their own.

Example 1: Problem-solving worksheet

Stage 1: My problem is:

I smoke dope because it makes me feel good and I have more confidence when I socialise with my mates! Mum and Dad are really getting on my back lately because they think that I am not doing so well at school and that I spend too much time in my room smoking and not enough time doing school work. It's fun to hang out with my mates and smoke.

Stage 2: Brainstorm possible solutions:

  • Join a sports team or start a sports team with mates
  • See if your mates can come over and study with you
  • Hang out with your mates less during the week and see them on the weekends
  • Get a tutor to help with your study
  • Cut down on your smoking during the week
  • Fail school
  • Get Mum or Dad to help you with your study
  • Study out in the kitchen
  • Try and smoke less on social occasions

Stage 3: Pros and cons of each solution:

  • Study with mates
    • pros: get work done together
    • cons: end up doing nothing
  • Fail at school
    • pros: continue to smoke
    • cons: get left behind
  • Join a sports team
    • pros: hang out with mates
    • cons: don't get to smoke
.... And the choices are: Join a sports team and study with mates
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Stage 4: What's my plan?

How? - Find out times and days of sports, organise study days

When? - Start on Monday after the weekend

Where? At school and at home

With whom? Friends from school

Example 2: Problem-solving worksheet

Stage 1: My problem is:

When I smoke dope I end up doing nothing. But smoking dope helps me to sleep. If I don't smoke late at night I can't get to sleep at all. Then I want to sleep all day.

Stage 2: Brainstorm possible solutions:

  • Stay awake all night
  • Watch TV until I fall asleep
  • Have a hot bath
  • Drink Milo and hot milk
  • Force myself to stay awake all day
  • Read a boring book
  • Take sleeping tablets

Stage 3: Pros and cons of each solution:

  • Stay awake all night
    • pros: will eventually get tired
    • cons: will give up and smoke
  • Watch TV
    • pros: something to do
    • cons: could keep me awake
  • Have a hot bath
    • pros: relaxing
    • cons: boring
.... And the choices are: Have hot baths and drink Milo and hot milk

Stage 4: What's my plan?

How? - Get mum to buy some stuff for the bath and some Milo

When? - Start on Sunday night after the weekend

Where? - At home

With whom? - Tell mum what I'm going to do Top of page

Applying problem-solving skills


Using the case example of 'Joe', develop a problem-solving worksheet. Write down key questions and statements you could use to get responses from Joe to get involved in the process.

Case study - Joe

Joe is a 14-year-old boy who has been caught smoking marijuana at school for the second time. He is being threatened with exclusion from school unless he agrees to see the AOD counsellor. Joe only smokes marijuana when he is with Peter and Fran as they are his good friends. Joe's parents have demanded that he not see those friends any more and have told him he will be sent to a boy's-only boarding school if he is expelled from his current school.


  • Assisting a young person to set realistic and reachable goals can be an important step in the process of taking action for change.

  • Once it is clear what a young person aims to achieve by making a change, concrete help with problem-solving and decision-making can be necessary.

  • Setting goals, solving problems and making decisions are all part of the process of change.