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Teens in age-inappropriate programs do poorly and adolescent programs that simply copy adult treatment practices aren’t as effective as programs specifically designed to meet the cognitive, social and emotional needs of a younger audience.

But what are these specific requirements and how do quality adolescent treatment programs respond to these needs?

The Essential Values of Teen Treatment

Well, according to the California State Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs, effective teen treatment programs are developed and operated on certain essential values that maximize respect and dignity and improve outcomes. These values are:1

  • Flexibility – Adolescents can change quickly. Programs need to offer responsive individualized programming that changes to meet the needs of each teen participant as his or her needs change.
  • Dignity – Teens have a right to dignity and personal privacy and to services that are respectful of cultural differences. Though you can force a teen to change behaviors, for a while, it's impossible to force a change in thinking. To accomplish the thinking-changes that lead to lasting behavioral change you need to build a trusting and collaborative relationship - and this requires dignity and respect.
  • Hope – Every teen is treated as a person that’s capable of making amazing changes in life.
  • Service Coordination – Here’s a saying that ideally guides quality adolescent treatment, “One team with one plan for one person!” More scattered services decrease overall treatment compliance. Since recovery is typically multifaceted, effective treatment programs work to coordinate services and to encourage full participation in all the social, psychological, legal, physical-health and other services necessary for full recovery.2
  • Self Determination – You can force an adolescent to stay in treatment but you can’t compel genuine participation. Programs that encourage teen participation in treatment planning and goal setting have a better chance of motivating lasting behavioral change.
  • Active Involvement – Teen clients are considered full partners in the treatment process. They are invited to participate meaningfully in all aspects of treatment, from treatment planning and goal setting, to participating in therapies, to evaluating progress at set intervals and to adjusting treatment as necessary.
  • Strengths Based – As one component of individualized care, each teen designs a treatment plan that makes use of personal strengths.
  • Advocacy Support – Teens are given tools and support to advocate for themselves.

Teens Are Treated as Humans, with Respect

So when looking for adolescent addiction treatment, try weighing any program under consideration against the list of ideal values above – programs that differ greatly from this list of ideal values may not offer treatment that’s as compassionate or effective as you want for your son or daughter.

For example, if you compared the practices of a discipline-heavy boot-camp style program, you’d notice that many of the philosophical underpinnings of such programs run counter to the recommend best-practices list above – (little privacy or dignity protection, no individualized treatment, no teen self-determination, no building on strengths, etc.) and this may explain the generally poor outcomes seen with these types of programs.3

Finding the Right Treatment - Questions to Ask

It’s hard to get the answers when you don’t know the right questions to ask, and without objective information, it’s tough to effectively compare between your treatment options.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, (AACAP) here are some questions to ask of potential providers when searching out potential treatment options.4

  • Why do you believe your program is the best fit for my child? How does your program compare to other options available?
  • What experience and credentials do staff on the treatment team have? Are these professional staff on site on a full-time basis? Is the adolescent substance abuse treatment accredited by any outside agency? (In some cases, a treatment facility may advertise JCAHO or other certification, but that certification only applies to certain specific programs, and may not apply to adolescent treatment, for example.)
  • What specific treatment interventions are used?
  • Based on your evaluation, do you believe my child has a co-occurring psychological problem requiring treatment? If so, how will this be addressed?
  • How will other family members be involved in treatment? How are family members involved in discharge decisions?
  • How much does treatment cost? What percentage of this is covered by insurance or health plans?
  • How long will treatment take? Is treatment step-down as necessary?
  • What types of continuing care will be available to my child?

Screening for Co-Occurring Disorders

If your son or daughter has a substance abuse problem – why is it so necessary to test for mental illness?

No matter what type of treatment you decide on (individual counseling, an outpatient program, residential care, etc.) it’s vital that your teen son or daughter receive a pre-treatment assessment to look for the possible co-presence of a complicating mental disorder.

Among teens with addiction issues, co-occurring mental illnesses are prevalent, so if your teen has a substance abuse issue severe enough to warrant treatment, you need to either rule-out mental illness or identify it so you can find the specialized co-occurring treatment that’s needed (teens with co-occurring disorders who receive only addiction treatment aren’t likely to have successful outcomes.)

  • One large research study, the Methods for the Epidemiology of Child and Adolescent Mental Disorders (MECA) study, found that within 6 months of testing, 76% of adolescents with substance use disorders met the criteria for a co-occurring mental illness.2

The Power of Hope

You need to get educated and spend a little time making sure that the treatment you select is the treatment that’s most suitable for your son or daughter.

Once informed you’ll know what to ask and what to look for and you’ll be in a better position to weed out those options that just don’t make much sense. Trust your gut and find a program that treats you and your child with dignity and respect; trust your mind and find a program that’s competent and able to help.

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Page last updated Dec 05, 2013

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