According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), roughly 2 million children and teens between the ages of 12 and 17 in the United States meet the criteria of needing substance abuse treatment. Unfortunately, less than eight percent of them actually get treatment and the help they need.
Many parents will often remain in denial about their child’s substance use problems, not wanting to believe that this is happening. Others may not realize the seriousness of the situation and just see it as “experimenting,” not considering that even if their child doesn’t become addicted to a substance, drug or alcohol use can have serious repercussions, including permanently impaired brain development, car accidents, sexual assault, and potentially lethal overdoses.
However, even if a parent does recognize that their child has a problem with drugs or alcohol that requires treatment, they may not know what to do to make that happen. Many addiction treatment facilities are strictly adults only, while others may also treat teens, but in the same style and methods as adults, which has been proven to be ineffective.
Substance abuse and addiction manifest differently in teens and young adults, which is why it is imperative that there are treatment programs specifically designed to meet their needs.
There are many causes and factors involved in the development of adolescent substance abuse and addiction, just as there are for adults. Along with the usual broad determinants like genetics and environment, adolescent risk factors include:
When it comes to adolescent substance abuse, the most common substances are alcohol and tobacco, followed closely by marijuana.
After that, the popularity of substances becomes split across age groups.
Younger kids are more likely to use inhalants like markers, glue or household cleaners, partially due to their easy access and presence in the average home. Older teenagers gravitate more toward synthetic marijuana, which can still be purchased legally in some places, as well as prescription medications like Adderall and OxyContin, which can often be found in medicine cabinets at home.
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Adolescence is a difficult developmental stage for many young people. Their bodies are changing, their emotions are often augmented, and it’s fairly normal for them to exhibit sometimes extreme changes in behavior as they begin to develop into the adult person they’ll eventually become. Teens are naturally in an experimenting stage of life and often engage in high-risk behaviors.
However, because so many behaviors associated with substance use problems can be potentially explained away as another symptom of puberty, parents can often miss the early signs of a growing substance problem until it is too late or the adverse effects of their child’s use of substances has become too obvious to go unnoticed.
As a parent, you have to be able to look past puberty cliches to recognize potential signs that your child is engaging in drug or alcohol use, including:
It is difficult to overstate the importance of identifying and addressing adolescent substance use as soon as possible, all the better if the problem can be stopped before it has the chance to become a full-blown addiction. There is no such thing as “safe” experimentation with addictive substances, and roughly 90 percent of individuals struggling with substance use disorders started using before age 18, and 50 percent before age 15.
While adolescents with substance use disorders rarely believe or will admit that they need treatment, some parents may be worried about the potential repercussions of “forcing” their child into treatment and that their unwillingness or lack of insight will keep them from truly benefiting from a treatment program.
However, according to research from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), mandated addiction treatment or treatment that someone has otherwise been entered into unwillingly can still be just as effective as voluntary treatment.
Up until as recently as the past 20 to 30 years, addiction recovery treatment programs treated their adolescent clients in the same manner as their adult ones. Addiction research began to increasingly show that this was not an effective form of treatment for teens and young adults, as their experiences with addiction were markedly different.
For example, as their brains are in many ways still developing, adolescents with substance use disorders, as compared to adults, show lower rates of problem recognition and ability to see beyond immediate concerns. They showed higher rates of binge use as well as much higher rates of co-occurring mental health disorders, making dual diagnosis treatment a top priority for adolescent clients.
Other considerations involved in adolescent addiction treatment include the fact that medication-assisted treatment (MAT) may not be an option. The reason for this is that while the medications used to treat addiction to opioids, alcohol, and other substances have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in adults over age 18, there is little to no research available to indicate whether these medications are effective or safe for adolescent use or the potential neurological impact they might have.
Adolescent treatment is often, though not always, conducted on an outpatient basis, allowing your child to remain at home and attend school, at least on a part-time or limited basis. However, some teens do better in inpatient or residential treatment, where they are removed from their everyday social environment.
One of the most key parts of effective adolescent substance abuse and addiction treatment is the presence and participation of the child’s family throughout the treatment process. Apart from their peer group, an adolescent’s family is their main and most significant influence and support. This can also be especially important in the case of outpatient treatment, where they will still be living at home, and everyone will need to work together to create a supportive environment with clear rules and boundaries.
Research has thoroughly shown that family-based treatments are extremely effective in treating adolescent substance abuse and addiction. There are many ways that an adolescent’s family can take part in their recovery apart from just showing support. Family therapy allows for a safe space in which old wounds can be healed, relationships can be rebuilt, trust can be established again, and improved methods of communication can be learned.
Families can also take addiction education classes to gain a better understanding of how addiction works and how it affects adolescents, which can help them more effectively support their child and encourage positive behavioral changes.
During treatment, adolescents are extremely vulnerable and more than ever need to know that they have the love, support, and understanding of their family members as they progress through their recovery program.
Addiction and substance abuse is something that no one wants for their child, and it’s normal for it all to feel a bit overwhelming, even after they are in recovery treatment. Some important things to keep in mind to help your child as much as possible both in and out of an addiction treatment program include:
As previously mentioned, there are many factors involved in the development of addiction, and if your child has a substance use disorder, it does not make you or your spouse a bad parent. Feeling guilty or looking for someone to blame isn’t going to help anyone. In fact, it can actively cause more damage. This is the time when your child needs the family to pull together, not become divided over trying to decide who is at fault.
Similarly, being judgmental toward your child will only serve to further break down the lines of communication between yourself and them. It is important to be firm in laying down rules and boundaries, but it is just as important that your child feels safe and comfortable in coming to you for help and trusting you with everything they’re going through.
When your child is in treatment, they can feel like they are at their lowest point, and if you continue to only focus on their mistakes and bad decisions, it can lead to them relapse and use again. Instead, make an effort to point out all the work they are putting into their recovery, encouraging them with positive reinforcement. Celebrate their victories, remind them that you believe in their ability to recover, that you love them and value them as a person, and that they can face these challenges.
However, it is important to know where the line is between supporting your child and enabling them. For parents, enabling can be a subconscious, instinctive behavior, and so you must actively lay down clear boundaries and avoid behavior such as making excuses for your child’s actions, unintentionally reinforcing substance use by trying not to cause a fight and taking the blame for their mistakes.
As previously mentioned, when it comes to making a successful recovery and maintaining sobriety, your participation can make all the difference. Support them during treatment and show that you are actively engaged in their progress. If the treatment center offers family-based therapies and addiction education classes, take part in them. Ask your child what you can do to help them continue to develop positive coping skills and behaviors.
If your child is struggling with an addiction to drugs or alcohol or engaging in substance abuse, don’t expect this problem to go away on its own. Get them the help they need at Family Recovery Specialists.
We understand that adolescents with substance use disorders have different treatment needs than adults, which is why we offer specialized treatment programs for teens and young adults that have been tailored to provide them with the resources they need to make a successful recovery.
Dennis, M., & Scott, C. K. (2007, December). Managing Addiction as a Chronic Condition from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2797101/
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014, January). Principles of Adolescent Substance Use Disorder Treatment: Frequently Asked Questions. from National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014, January). Principles of Adolescent Substance Use Disorder Treatment: Frequently Asked Questions. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-adolescent-substance-use-disorder-treatment-research-based-guide/frequently-asked-questions
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014, January). Principles of Adolescent Substance Use Disorder Treatment: Frequently Asked Questions. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-adolescent-substance-use-disorder-treatment-research-based-guide/frequently-asked-questionsWinters, K. C., Botzet, A. M., & Fahnhorst, T. (2011, October). Advances in Adolescent Substance Abuse Treatment. from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3166985/