Drug abuse and teens – The adolescent addiction challenge.

Guest author: Clint Stonebraker

teen-smokingRecovery from any addiction is a difficult process. It involves an individual’s willingness to take responsibility for his or her actions, a concrete decision to make significant lifestyle changes, and the courage to repair damaged relationships. The level of emotional maturity involved in taking these steps is usually somewhat foreign to an addict.

What about a person who is suffering from addiction and is, developmentally speaking, still a child? How does this person muster the emotional maturity needed to begin the recovery process?

I had the opportunity to work with a seventeen year old whose father had recently been treated for alcoholism. The father had suffered numerous consequences related to his alcohol problem including multiple D.U.I.’s and a divorce. By the time he sought treatment, the father was motivated to make a life change. He understood the root of his life problems revolved around alcohol abuse and had a desire to take responsibility for his actions.

When it came to the son, things weren’t that simple…

The seventeen year old had also suffered numerous consequences related to his drug abuse. He had already been arrested twice and had left home four months prior to seeing me. In fact, he clearly stated the only reason he agreed to the appointment was because his father had made it a part of the criteria for the boy to come home. He still believed the problems in his life were due to others not “leaving him alone.”

teensFor decades the adolescent substance abuse problem has gotten progressively worse. There have been prevention programs which have had some success, but adolescents continue to abuse drugs and alcohol at an alarming rate.

Because of this, it is important for anyone who works with adolescents to understand this unique population:

  • The conscious motivation for most adolescents to abuse drugs and alcohol is different than that of an adult. An adolescent who engages in substance abuse is seeking fun and peer acceptance, whereas the adult is seeking pain relief.
  • In most cases adolescents have yet to face the same level of physical or emotional consequences most adult addicts have faced
  • The adult addict is responsible for all aspects of his or her life, the adolescent isn’t

These are just a few of the differences between adults and adolescents with substance abuse issues. Some of the challenges in treatment include:

  • Creating an environment in which the adolescent has fun and gains peer acceptance. Developmentally these are needs which must be addressed
  • Helping an emotionally immature child take enough internal responsibility for his or her actions to be motivated to change
  • Showing an adolescent how to maintain healthy balance in his or her emotional life, in other words, limiting the emotional extremes

The biggest mistake clinicians make in treating adolescent substance abuse is assuming the adolescent is capable of dealing with life like an adult. In most cases, an adolescent must be able to see recovery as an attractive lifestyle. An adolescent substance abuser already has a general lack of trust with adults or any other “authority” figures. It is critical to maintain patience in order to gain the trust of an adolescent. Once trust is established, it is possible to reach an adolescent at their level.

When it came to this seventeen-year-old son, I knew that in order for this young man to begin the recovery process, he would need to see sobriety as an attractive lifestyle choice. I was aware of a group that held regular support group meetings specifically for young people. They also facilitated social events on the weekend.

As a part of the therapeutic process, I included his involvement with this group. The combination of counseling and a peer support system gave this young man a comprehensive plan of action.

As a result of beginning to associate sobriety with feeling good, he became more responsive to counseling. Over time he began to take more responsibility for his actions. He had a group of peers with whom he was accountable, could have fun, and network.

His father was involved in this process through his own counseling and involvement in a parent support group. Over time this young man was able to stay sober and reacclimatize himself into society.


This story illustrates key components of a process of recovery for adolescents. Over time an adolescent can begin to see the consequences of his or her actions. It is important to keep in mind what adolescents respond to. It is not one element that provides the key to adolescent recovery. It is the combination of therapy, peer support, and family involvement which provides the best opportunity for an adolescent to recover from addiction.

If we want to weaken the connection between teens and drugs, we have to start using what works.

7 Replies to “Drug abuse and teens – The adolescent addiction challenge.”

  1. Wow! YOU HIT THE NAIL ON THE HEAD. YOU’VE TAKEN A COMPLEX,DIFFICULT PROBLEM AND BROKE IT DOWN INTO SIMPLE UNDERSTANDABLE TERMS. THANKS TIM

  2. Thanks guys. A big problem in adolescent treatment is the assumption adolescents are prepared to deal with “adult” problems in an adult way. They’re not. It is our responsibility to reach them where they are, not where we think they should be.

  3. Knowing the developmental stages of the human brain, helped me to understand, that even until about age 25, our brains are still changing. If we, or our children or both are involved in mind altering substances for any length of time, we may have interrupted or even seemingly arrested development of the emotional regulation, that we develop along with actual brain development. Seemingly simple concepts like taking responsibility for our actions and being accountable for our commitments and making choices that help rather than hinder our lives. That seems to be part of the “work” of recovery. Support for this type of emotional regulation is important. This article is exactly what we need if we are involved in recovery on any level…thank you.

  4. As I read this article, I couldn’t stop thinking about a book I read recently titled, “The Sobering Truth” by Jeff Herten, M.D. which is about the effects of alcohol… scared me to death. I not only learned about the different cancers that alcohol is linked with, but the facts related to binge drinking, fetal alcohol syndrome, etc. Pretty eye opening. You bet I will talk to my teen about the effects of alcoholism.

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