Addiction is a common problem in the United States. Substance use disorders can affect anyone, regardless of demographics, like class, race, and age. Adolescents under age 18 are in a critical point of development that makes them particularly vulnerable to drugs and alcohol. 

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) conducts the Monitoring the Future (MTF) Survey, which looks at drug use among students. While the trends of hard drug use seem to be declining, 2.7 percent of students reported opioid use in the past year in 2019. Cocaine use affected 2.2 percent of 12th-graders. Early exposure to drugs and alcohol can lead to an increased risk of adult substance use issues.

Learn more about adolescent treatment and how it can help to address substance use issues in kids and young adults. 

How Does Adolescent Treatment Work?

Addiction treatment is a complex process designed to treat substance use issues and other underlying health problems. In fact, NIDA says effective addiction treatment should address multiple needs beyond just substance use. Treatment should also be personalized to individual needs, and there is no one-size-fits-all treatment method. 

Addiction treatment for adolescents is similar to treatment for adults, but it comes with its own set of challenges. Adolescents are still in development and have a growing prefrontal cortex, so they have immature cognitive skills related to impulsivity, goal setting, reasoning, and judgment. The goal of treatment is often the same, which is to achieve long-lasting sobriety. But achieving that goal may require treatment that’s tailored to developing adolescents. 

Addiction treatment will start with an assessment process to determine the level of care that’s right for each individual. There are four main levels of care, including medically managed detox, inpatient treatment, intensive outpatient treatment, and outpatient treatment. But adolescents may often find themselves in the lowest level of outpatient care, which is early intervention. Early intervention is intended to identify early signs of drug use issues like binge drinking or illicit drug use and stop it before a more severe substance use disorder develops. 

Adolescents that have a moderate-to-severe substance use problem may need a higher level of care. Medical detox may be necessary for people that have a chemical dependence, especially if depressants are involved. Detox aims to get people through the withdrawal process safely because some drugs can cause potentially dangerous withdrawals. 

After detox, you will progress to the next level of care that’s appropriate for your needs. If you have high-level medical needs or if living independently might jeopardize your recovery or safety, you may progress to inpatient treatment. If you can live at home, you might be able to enroll in an outpatient program. 

How Long is Adolescent Treatment?

Addiction treatment is an individualized process, even the length of time you spend in treatment will depend on your needs. If you have a mild substance use disorder, you may only need a few weeks of early intervention outpatient treatment. If you have a severe substance use problem, you may need a few months of treatment.

Many evidence-based treatment approaches are tested for 12 to 16 weeks. Though some adolescents may need longer treatment options. 

NIDA recommends that formal addiction treatment, from detox to outpatient services should last 90 days. Treatment for at least three months has shown to be more effective in treating substance use disorders than shorter treatment durations. However, the length of treatment your need will depend on the severity of your addiction and the treatment you need.

What are Some Evidence-Based Treatments for Adolescents?

Evidence-based treatments are therapeutic approaches that have been tested in official scientific settings. No therapy options work for everyone, but evidence-based treatments likely provide value to some clients and clinicians. Evidence-based approaches have shown to be effective in most cases. It’s important that evidence-based treatment forms the foundation of effective rehab programs. 

Alternative therapies that have not shown evidence of being effective for most people, like yoga and art therapy, may still have some value for some people. But alternative therapies should be kept as supplemental to evidence-based approaches. 

Therapies that are tested for adults also need to be tested in their effectiveness in adolescents. Adults may respond to treatments differently than someone younger. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, several treatment options have been tested scientifically and proven to be effective. 

Behavioral Therapies

Behavioral therapies are among the most commonly used addiction treatment options. Behavioral approaches involve therapies that focus on how your thoughts influence your behavior and motivations. For instance, contingency management uses rewards to motivate participation in recovery efforts. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most common types of behavioral therapy, especially when it comes to relapse prevention. CBT involves learning about your triggers, stressors, and how you cope with them. It also involves learning more effective coping responses that prevent a relapse. 

The adolescent community reinforcement approach (ACRA) is modified for adolescents in recovery. It replaces negative influences with positive community support that involves families and education. 

Group Therapy

Group therapy is instrumental in recovery efforts for adults. It helps adults learn to make personal connections, listen to issues other people face, and get outside of their own worries and fixations. However, group therapy can be more tricky for adolescents. NIDA warns that adolescents can sometimes glorify drug use in group conversations and that facilitators should be trained to steer the conversation in a direction that doesn’t undermine recovery goals. Still, group therapy can offer similar benefits to adolescents that it does for adults. 

Family Therapy

As adolescents, children under age 18 are dependent on their parents or guardians. For adults, family therapy can be helpful in repairing relationships and bolstering a client’s support system. For many children, family therapy is essential. Several types of family therapy involve participation from at least one parent or guardian. Family behavioral therapy combines behavioral therapy approaches with family involvement. Parents learn skills in behavioral therapy to help improve the home environment. 

The family approach may also involve multidimensional family therapy, which involves a collaboration between the families of adolescents with substance use issues and other support systems like school and family court. 

Do I Need Adolescent Addiction Treatment?

Since children and young adults are in critical stages of development, it’s important to address substance use disorder as soon as they begin. Long-term use of drugs can stunt cognitive development and early exposure can increase their risk of becoming addicted later on in life.

Signs that an adolescent might have a substance use problem include:

  • Physical signs like red eyes or dilated pupils
  • Strange sleep patterns
  • Change in friend groups
  • Intoxication
  • Poor coordination
  • Slurred speech
  • Drowsiness
  • Struggling at school
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Hiding or lying about drug use

A child with alcohol or drugs exposure might need more protective factors to avoid developing a substance use issue. 

Protective factors are elements of daily life that can shield a person from addiction, while risk factors can increase the likelihood that they might develop a disorder. Risk factors can include a lack of parental supervision, early substance abuse, high drug availability,  and socioeconomic issues.

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