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Drug and alcohol use among teens might seem to be a right-of-passage, but it’s a serious problem. Rehab for teenagers is effective for helping kids and their families deal with substance use disorders (SUDs).
It’s possible to develop a drug or alcohol use disorder at any age, but these substances have a greater impact on teens than on adults even before an addiction develops. Teenagers try drugs and alcohol for many different reasons, but do so not understanding the potential risks and long-term effects of underage drinking.
Alcohol and drug use disrupt brain development and damage a person’s ability to respond to stress and other stimuli effectively. There is a link between drug and alcohol use among teens and depression, personality disorders, and heightened suicide risk in adulthood. And a developing brain is at higher risk for addiction because it develops cravings and dependence faster. This means trying drugs or alcohol too early in life can have catastrophic results.
There are also secondary problems stemming from teen drug and alcohol use. Inexperienced and intoxicated drivers have a higher risk of auto accidents. Additionally, underage alcohol and drug users are more prone to risky behaviors and face a higher risk of involvement in violence. Long-term, early-in-life substance users have a higher risk for heart disease, sleep disorders, stroke, and different types of cancer.
There is no safe way for teens to use alcohol or drugs safely, despite how many people believe experimentation is a normal part of growing up.
According to a 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, more than 1.4 million teenagers needed treatment for an illicit drug problem that year. It’s difficult to get accurate numbers about teen drug use because not everyone is honest about their substance use.
Many teens try drugs or alcohol one time without developing a serious problem. But this doesn’t mean trying drugs is safe. The majority of people who try alcohol and drugs one time do not become addicted, but teens are more vulnerable to addiction than adults.
Experimentation is not harmless. But not all teens are using drugs. According to the National center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia, nearly half of all U.S. high school students are using potentially addictive drugs. This means more than half graduate from high school without ever having experimented.
What’s the harm in experimenting if it probably won’t lead to a problem?
There is a difference between experimenting with drugs or alcohol and developing a use disorder. Many people have tried drugs and alcohol without becoming addicted, but the likelihood of this occurring is greater for a younger person.
When someone decides to experiment with drugs or alcohol, he or she is making a conscious choice and is in control. When a person develops an addiction, the use of a substance is no longer a choice. Someone with an alcohol or drug use disorder cannot control his or her need or craving for the substance. And since ongoing use changes brain chemistry, the ability to control drug or alcohol use over time becomes increasingly difficult.
Rehab for teens isn’t necessary for every child who tries drugs or alcohol, but many benefit from these programs.
It might be challenging to recognize a substance use disorder in a teenager. In general, the most common symptoms include:
Many of the symptoms of SUD are the same as they are for alcohol use disorder (AUD) in teens. For instance, drug and alcohol problems affect a teen’s academic performance and personal relationships. Additionally, loved ones might notice dishonesty, loss of interest in once-important activities, and anger or hostility.
Each of these issues alone doesn’t automatically indicate a substance or alcohol use disorder. Many of these are a part of normal adolescent development or could indicate a problem unrelated to drugs or alcohol. But a combination of these issues indicates a need to address a potential problem.
Additionally, a substance use disorder could trigger physical symptoms such as:
It is never too early to seek help for your teenager if he or she is using drugs or alcohol. Even if he or she has not developed dependence on a substance yet, drug and alcohol use early in life:
Teenagers also have a higher risk for binge drinking. Binge drinking is consuming five or more drinks for males and four or more drinks for females within two hours. Though a teenager might not yet have a long-term use issue with alcohol, just a single binge can cause alcohol poisoning, a potentially deadly problem.
Furthermore, families in which alcohol use disorder is a problem should be especially proactive about seeking treatment for teens. Alcohol use disorder has a genetic component, which means teenagers with relatives with AUD have a higher risk of developing it themselves.
Research shows substance abuse treatment and addiction rehab are effective for teens. Treatment options include behavioral treatment, family intervention, and medication. Each addresses specific aspects of a teen’s alcohol or drug use. Most teen rehab programs last about 12 to 16 weeks but are extended on a case-by-case basis.
Many treatment programs began with medically supervised detoxification. This ensures the elimination of alcohol or drugs in a person’s system and eases withdrawal symptoms as much as possible. Following detox, there are several drug and alcohol rehab options for teenagers.
Inpatient treatment is the most intense rehab option offered to those with the most severe drug or alcohol use disorders (AUDs). Inpatient treatment programs last at least 30 days and are a precursor to ongoing outpatient treatment.
Inpatient treatment offers several benefits, including:
Outpatient treatment provides access to support while allowing a teen to live at home. It is not as intense as inpatient treatment, but still requires a strong commitment to recovery.
Outpatient treatment offers several benefits, including:
Both inpatient and outpatient programs can include individual and group treatment, as well as family counseling. When needed, both programs also address co-occurring conditions.
Medication-assisted treatment is available for opioid and alcohol use disorders (AUD). Medication reduces cravings, withdrawal symptoms, and diminishes the appeal of substances. Medication-assisted treatment is not FDA-approved for people under 18, but it is legal for doctors to prescribe medication to teens with SUDs and AUDs.
Pharmaceuticals used in medication-assisted treatment include:
Many people with substance and alcohol use disorders also have co-occurring mental health conditions. Depression, anxiety, ADHD, and other disorders increase a person’s risk for SUDs and AUDs, or they arise because of the SUD or AUD.
There is a link between mental health disorders and addiction and dependence, but one does not necessarily cause the other. Regardless which came first for an individual, all conditions must be treated simultaneously. Doing so ensures the greatest potential for recovery.
Therapy and counseling help teens with alcohol and drug use disorders cope with stress and avoid triggers related to drug and alcohol use. Many of the counseling and therapy approaches used with adults are effective with teenagers.
The most effective counseling approaches include:
This approach teaches teens how to anticipate triggers and plan effective coping strategies for when they occur.
This approach provides rewards for positive behavior. For example, a person would receive praise for participating in a group therapy session.
This approach helps people find the desire to seek treatment.
The 12 steps approach introduces people to and encourages them to apply the 12-steps of recovery. Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are popular 12-step programs.
Therapy approaches proven effective for concurrently helping teens with substance or alcohol use disorders and their families include:
This approach replaces negative influences with positive alternatives and rewards. It reduces substance use and dependence, increases social stability, and improves physical and mental health, as well as the quality of life. Therapy sessions include teens and their parents or caregivers.
Multisystemic Therapy (MST) address environmental risk factors including:
This is an intensive comprehensive treatment approach that is most effective with teens with severe substance use disorders who also have problems with delinquency and/or violence. This approach takes into account:
Counseling and therapy are needed to help teenagers with alcohol or drug use disorders learn how to live without substances. Programs provide teens with coping skills for dealing with stress, prep them for re-entry into school or the community, and address other risk factors for relapse.
Family approaches to teen alcohol and drug use disorders focus on the need for parents, siblings, and other people close to the affected teen to involve themselves in the treatment process. Family-based approaches address many problems in addition to the SUD or AUD, such as:
Many medical experts consider family approaches superior to other individual or group treatment options. Family-based therapy approaches include:
Brief Strategic Family Therapy (BSFT) focuses on improving family behavior with each family member. According to this theory, a teen’s substance or alcohol use disorder stems from unhealthy family interactions. Treatment typically lasts 12 to 16 sessions. Therapists observe the behavior of each member of the family and help them change negative interactions.
Family Behavior Therapy (FBT) teaches teenagers and parents behavioral strategies and rewards positive behavior. The approach combines behavioral contracting with contingency management. Together, teens and adults participate in treatment planning and choose specific interventions suitable for their circumstances.
Families are encouraged to use the skills learned in therapy sessions at home. Goals are created to prevent the use of alcohol and drugs and reduce other risky behaviors. A contingency management system reinforces these goals. Therapy sessions include a review of goals and rewards for accomplishments.
Functional Family Therapy (FFT) enhances a family’s motivation for change and improves communication and other behavioral skills. This approach combines the theories that are the basis for BSFT and FBT. Strategies include:
The Multidimensional Family Therapy (MDFT) uses collaboration with the school and criminal justice system to help at-risk teens who are having behavior or legal issues. It’s both a family- and community-based treatment that fosters family competency and collaboration with other systems. This approach is used primarily with teens with severe substance use disorders and helps them reintegrate into the community.
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