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Substance Abuse: Treatment for Teens

What is substance abuse?

Substance abuse is when your teen keeps taking a drug even though it causes a problem such as:

  • Showing up late or missing work or school and not caring about things that used to matter to him
  • Breaking rules or breaking the law
  • Not keeping promises, arguing, or even getting violent with other people
  • Doing things that are dangerous, such as driving while under the influence

Substance abuse puts kids at greater risk for accidents, violence, unplanned and unsafe sex, and suicide. If your teen continues to abuse drugs, he can become dependent. When your teen is dependent on drugs, he:

  • Needs to use more and more of the drug, or use it more often to get the same effects
  • Loses control, which means he keeps using drugs even though he knows that it is harmful to him or others, or he can't stop using drugs when he tries
  • Craves drugs so much that he spends a lot of time and energy getting drugs, using drugs, and getting over the effects
  • Has withdrawal symptoms when he stops using drugs

Dependence is also called addiction.

Substances commonly abused by teens include Ecstasy, marijuana, cocaine, prescription medicines, alcohol, and others.

How is substance abuse treated?

Short-term methods, lasting less than 6 months, include day treatment, medicine, and therapy.

  • Day treatment is a special kind of school where your teen goes to classes as well as therapy. It is helpful when your teen's behavior is so out of control that he can no longer be in a regular school setting.
  • Medicines may be prescribed to help teens who are depressed or anxious. Some medicines decrease the cravings for alcohol or drugs, and some makes you sick when you drink. This may reduce the chances that your teen will abuse drugs or alcohol in the future.
  • Therapy may involve individual, group, and family therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy may help teens learn new ways to act and think so they can avoid drugs and alcohol in the future. Family therapy can be one of the most effective parts of treatment. Teens who improve family relationships, become more involved in their school, and make new friends who do not use alcohol or drugs are more successful in their recovery.

Residential therapy often lasts much longer than 6 months. Your teen will live at the residential treatment home. Residential treatment programs are also used for teens that have gone back to substance abuse after treatment, or who have been in trouble with the law. Random urine tests are often part of these programs.

How do I find the right treatment for my teen?

  • Find a therapist who has experience working with teens who abuse substances.
  • If your teen needs residential treatment, it helps if the treatment center is nearby so that your family can be involved. Family therapy can help you learn how to help your teen.
  • A good treatment program will allow your teen to keep up with schoolwork, while also learning how to live without abusing substances. Some programs are also able to treat depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems.
  • Get an idea of how long this phase of treatment will last, and what kind of ongoing treatment your teen should have.
  • Make sure that you understand the costs of treatment, and whether those costs are covered by your insurance.

What can I do to help my teen?

Talk to your teen about your suspicions and listen to what they tell you. Follow your instincts. If your teen has a problem with alcohol or drugs, it won't go away without treatment. If you suspect a problem, seek help from your healthcare provider, a mental health professional, or local treatment center.

Other things you can do to help your teen include:

  • Teach your teen how to make good choices about alcohol and drugs. Teach in a way that fits your child's age and ability to understand.
  • Listen to your teen's feelings and concerns, so that they feel comfortable talking with you.
  • Make your family position on drugs clear. For example "In our family, we don't use drugs and the children are not allowed to drink alcohol." Set a good example. Your teen is much more likely to use smoke, drink, or use drugs if you smoke, drink, or use drugs, even if you tell them not to.
  • Talk about what makes a good friend. Peer pressure is a big part of why kids get involved with drugs and alcohol. Help your teen understand that friends who pressure them to drink or use drugs aren't friends at all. Role-play ways for your teen to say no to drugs, for example:
    • Say, “no, thanks” and walk away.
    • Suggest something else to do, such as go play a video game.
    • Use humor, such as "No thanks. If I want to fry my brain, I'll get a skillet."
  • Build self-esteem. Teens who feel good about themselves are much less likely to turn to drugs. Offer lots of praise for a job well done. If you need to criticize or discipline your teen, talk about the action, not the teen. For example, instead of saying "you should know better" try saying, "what you're doing is not safe." Set aside time every day to talk, play a game, or take a walk with each of your children.

You may want to contact:

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2013.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2012-05-29
Last reviewed: 2012-05-29
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2013 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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