How to Help Teens Navigate Addiction

Teen addictionIn past articles, we have discussed the challenges of parenting in addiction. Watching a son or daughter struggle with substance abuse is painful and frustrating—especially in moments when you feel powerless in changing the situation. But what do those situations specifically look like with teens? How can you help support your teen to move toward a healthier path? Consider the following perspective on watching for signs and communicating with your teen about substance abuse.

Need for education

Parents are encouraged by numerous outlets to talk to their kids about sensitive topics, such as drinking, drugs, and healthy relationships. While those discussions may be happening, recent research is finding gaps in both parents and adolescents’ perceptions and knowledge of popular drugs and their inherent risks. Trends and changes in youth substance abuse, such as the popularity of e-cigarettes and the rise of painkiller misuse, demand more parent and student education on health risks. As we hear more tragic stories of drug overdose, we see opportunities for those parenting conversations to rethink the script and talk about more substances and choices—both legal and illegal—to help correct misconceptions on safe versus unsafe drugs.

For example, Psychology Today reports that only 14% of parents mention prescription drugs when talking to their kids about drug abuse, and one in six parents believes prescription drugs are safer than street drugs. With the growing problem of opioid abuse, examples like this remind us that many families don’t realize the danger that may be accessed and acquired within their own homes.

Recognizing signs and influences

Partnership for Drug-Free Kids helps educate parents on why teens experiment with drugs and how to conduct constructive discussions around substance abuse. Common influences on teen drug use include exposure from parents or peers, interest in self-medication and escape, desire for rebellion, lack of confidence, and boredom/lack of structure. Along with risk factors, these influences can impact teens’ decision-making, driving them to seek solace or acceptance in drugs and alcohol.

For teens who are starting to experience the effects of repeated substance abuse and mask their behaviors, common behavioral changes include the following:

  • Acting uncharacteristically loud or uncoordinated
  • Excessively using over-the-counter products for eye reddening and nasal irritation
  • Reckless driving and/or unexplained dents and damages to their car
  • Disappearing for long periods of time
  • Exhibiting periods of high energy followed by long periods of sleep

Learning the context of substance abuse

Whether for therapeutic or recreational purposes, adolescents are often subjects of polysubstance abuse—use of three or more classes of substances. Rather than being addicted to one substance, such as alcohol, adolescents may get in the practice of using multiple substances to create a more intense experience and increase the effects of a certain drug. For example, someone may use stimulants like cocaine or methamphetamine to go “up” and depressants like alcohol, marijuana, or opioids to come “down.” Patterns like these can contribute to increased levels of distress, anxiety, and irrational behavior.

With dependency on multiple substances, breaking these habits can be especially challenging as the addiction grows in complexity. Situations where a teen is struggling with multiple substances underscore an even greater need for supervised detoxification and professional treatment.

Finding help in the process

While discovering and accepting a teen’s addiction may feel heartbreaking, helping them enroll in an outpatient treatment program may be what saves them from even more traumatic consequences. Outpatient treatment helps teens understand addiction as a disease, break their chemical dependencies, and gain tools for making healthy lifestyle decisions as they approach adulthood.

Is your teen showing signs of struggling with an addiction? Have you pursued conversations about treatment? Learn more about adolescent treatment options.