The development of meaningful and achievable goals can be facilitated once both the practitioner and the young person are clear about the following aspects:

  • The function of a young person’s substance use
  • The motivations and concerns around their substance use
  • The strengths and areas where they need to develop new competencies
  • The current resources that are and are not available to the young person

It can be a challenge for some young people to formulate goals, particularly when they have a lack of experience and are feeling overwhelmed by their circumstances. If this is the case the practitioner can start by eliciting broad goals to guide their work with a young person. The practitioner can then assist the young person to break down their overall goals into small, achievable steps.  It is essential however, that the goal is articulated by the young person and matches their own desires and wishes.  Over time and with practice, goal setting can become an important competency for a young person whereby they can formulate achievable goals that lead to strategies to achieve those goals, for themselves. 

In the context of ceasing, reducing or controlling substance use, effective goals can be set using the SMART goals model, whereby effective goals are: Specific Measurable Achievable Relevant and Time Bound.

Example of a SMART goal for controlled cannabis use
‘Ben’ is an 18 year old young man who smokes 1-2 grams of cannabis most days and drinks 8-12 standard drinks of alcohol every weekend. He has just been offered a pre-apprenticeship placement at the local TAFE.  You are Ben’s youth AOD worker. Ben shares with you that he is concerned that his cannabis use will interfere with his ability to complete TAFE, so he states; “I want to cut back on weed when I start TAFE”.

This is not a SMART goal, but it’s a great start because he has identified the substance type (cannabis) he’d like to control and reduce, and given a time frame for commencing this goal (i.e. when TAFE starts). Reframing this into a SMART goal gives the process considerably more focus:

Ben’s goal is to limit cannabis use to no more than 4 grams per week in total (SPECIFIC)

He will aim to cut down to no more than 2 grams per day on Saturdays or Sundays only, with no cannabis use at all during week days (MEASURABLE)

He aims to achieve this goal fully in 2 months time when TAFE starts. Ben has been able to cut down for short periods in the past but now that he has extra support and the right strategies in place, he believes longer term change is viable (ACHIEVABLE)

Ben noticed that when he has cut down cannabis use in the past it has improved his ability to stick with study (RELEVANT)

Ben has a plan to achieve this goal by the time TAFE starts, and to stick with it for the entire study period (TIME-BOUND)

SMARTER goals also build in Evaluation and Review or Re-evaluation. 

Young people need to be reminded that goals can, and often do, change. At regular intervals the practitioner can make time with the young person to review goals and make necessary adjustments to ensure that they are realistic and relevant.

Humeniuk et al (2010) identify the following questions that young people who plan to control or reduce their substance use can ask themselves.  These are not prescriptive but can be used as prompts when setting goals:

  • How many substance free days per week or month?
  • How often will I use?
  • How many times will I use on using days?
  • What is the maximum amount I will use at any one time?
  • How much will I use in a week or month?
  • What are my high risk situations where I’ll avoid using?
  • How will I administer the substance?
  • How will I reduce the risk of harm?

Interventions based on each of the eight therapeutic models are guided by the goals of clients. Solutions Focussed Therapy and the Adolescent Community Reinforcement approach both have specific dedicated to goal setting.

B5. Goal setting (SFT)
Goal setting is a major therapeutic task within SFT. The focus is on helping the young person imagine how he or she would like things to be different and what it will take to make that happen. For SFT to be effective goals must be personally important to the client; they cannot be goals that other people have in mind for them. Goals in SFT are framed positively as desirable things that the person want to achieve or to have in their life, not as undesirable things they want to stop doing or to get away from.

D4. Goal setting & Review (ACRA)
In ACRA, goal setting involves working collaboratively with the young person to identify areas of life where she or he wants to make changes and then prioritise. In ACRA behaviour is viewed holistically and the focus isn’t solely on problem behaviour like substance use.  Like SFT Goals should be stated positively  – stating  what the young person will do, not what s/he won’t do (Godley, Meyers, et al., 2001; p69) In other words stating what they are moving towards rather than what they are moving away from (Neenan & Dryden, 2004).


In the sidebar are links to relevant sections (including tools for clients) of the World Health Organisation publication: Self-help strategies for cutting down or stopping substance use: a guide.