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Fact: teens rarely admit to a substance abuse problem and almost never ask for help on their own.

Teens rarely see themselves as needing help since:1

  • They don’t connect negative consequences with their substance use.
  • They don’t usually experience withdrawal symptoms.
  • Parental protection shields them from many natural consequences.

This complicates recovery as:

  1. Though teens are more predisposed to addiction and to a quicker progression from experimental use to addiction, teens almost never seek help on their own.
  2. People who don’t believe they have a problem don’t tend to engage in the treatment process - and though you can sometimes force an adolescent into treatment, you can’t force a new way of thinking.

This is why you need to make sure you find quality adolescent-specific treatment.

  • Effective adolescent addiction treatment programs are designed to help teens gain a more accurate picture of their behaviors and their consequences and structured to keep teens engaged in the treatment process for long enough to start seeing the benefits.
  • Sending a teen to an adult treatment program rarely works, since adult programs rely on self-awareness and self-motivation that adolescents just don’t have.

Why Teens Can’t Self Recognize Addiction

1. They don’t usually get withdrawal symptoms.

Popular culture presents an addiction portrait that rarely corresponds to adolescent reality – for example the desperate opioid addict doing ‘anything’ to get a fix – or the alcoholic needing a drink in the morning to quiet their shaking hands.

While some adults with substance use disorders progress to this type of dependence, adolescents rarely do.

  • Teens most commonly abuse alcohol and marijuana. When drinking they tend to binge drink (rather than necessarily drinking each day) and they rarely experience withdrawal symptoms when going a few days without use – largely due to a shorter use-history.

But though teens may not experience withdrawal symptoms, they can experience other telltale addiction symptoms, like losing control over use and continuing to use despite serious consequences.

2. They don’t experience as many adverse consequences.

It often takes years of addiction and addiction-related consequences (divorce, financial problems, legal problems, etc.) to convince an adult to seek help. A teen with a shorter use history wouldn’t have experienced the same level of ‘wreckage’ and might also have trouble connecting actions with their consequences.

Also, adolescents, especially teens living at home, enjoy a degree of protection from the outside world that can insulate them from some of the natural consequences of drug and alcohol abuse.

  • An adult who spends all their money on drugs might face eviction – an adolescent living at home wouldn’t have the same problems.

Unfortunately, research suggests that one of the greatest predictors of adolescent incentive for change is the degree of negative consequences experienced: teens who can recognize that drinking or drug use has led to severe consequences are more likely to engage in treatment than teens who cannot self recognize this association.2

Treatment Implications

One size fits all treatment doesn’t work – and treatment that helps adults doesn’t necessarily help teens.

Because teens rarely perceive a need for treatment (even when everyone else can see it clearly) quality adolescent treatment is designed to keep teens engaged in the process and to help them see the true consequences of their actions (as well as the consequences to come.)

Common elements of effective adolescent treatment programs include:

  • Motivational enhancement therapies – helping teens identify the pros and cons of continued use, so they can decide for themselves of a need for change.
  • Rewards – providing rewards for meeting treatment goals helps keep teens engaged in the process, especially in the early stages, when they may not yet see a need for treatment or experience many rewards from abstinence (abstinence rewards come slower and later.)
  • Skills training – providing teens with the skills they need to refuse drugs or alcohol and deal with cravings and temptation. Teaching problem solving and interpersonal skills.
  • Replacing unhealthy behaviors – helping teens replace unhealthy behaviors with more constructive activities.

Taking Action and Finding Help

You don’t necessarily have to send your child to teen rehab (you’d almost always try counseling or outpatient treatment first) but when there's drug or alcohol abuse, you do need to take action, since drugs and alcohol affect teens more:

  • Teens, with still-developing brains experience greater drug and alcohol related brain damage and structural alterations than adults. Even adolescent marijuana addiction can have a lasting impact,
  • Drug and alcohol use in adolescence can lead to social and family problems and school performance issues, and left unchecked, these can have lifelong consequences.
  • Teens who abuse drugs or alcohol may not achieve the essential developmental tasks of adolescence. By responding to problems, boredom and leisure time with intoxication they don’t explore and learn healthier living skills.
  • Early drug and alcohol abuse is strongly correlated with later in life addiction issues.

So if your son or daughter uses drugs or alcohol, and you can’t get them to stop, you need to take action today. To learn more, read:

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Page last updated Nov 20, 2015

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