Treating teenagers for substance abuse involves a different approach than therapies used for older individuals. In addition to the addiction itself, there are developmental issues (both physio- and psychological), cultural mores, and academic issues that must be addressed.
Physiological and Psychological Problems
Where teenagers are in their biological development plays a large role in addiction and susceptibility to addiction. Recent studies indicate that the pleasure center of the brain develops much more quickly than the area of the brain that governs impulse control. As a result, teenagers (and those in the immediate age demographic) are likely to give in to urges to experiment with psychoactive substances more quickly than adults are. In addition, the use of addictive substances impedes or impairs the development of the impulse control function and thus changes the dynamics of the maturation. For example, studies indicate that those who begin using alcohol or drugs at an early age are more likely to become dependent on these same substances than those who begin at a later stage.
Societal influences also play a role, to the point that using addictive substances gains a degree of credibility and is not considered a problem. Binge drinking in college (although there is a significant trend towards discouraging this activity) is generally viewed as part of the entire experience and is accepted. The same binge drinking behavior by someone in the business world, however, is viewed as immature and a sign of a problem. This tacit approval of the behavior in one setting, while disapproving of it in another, contributes to a belief that as long as it is exhibited in an approved setting, the behavior is acceptable.
Finally, academic issues must be factored into any treatment program for teenagers. Unless the teen has finished required schooling, any treatment program must provide a means to continue studies so the patient will not lag too far behind peers and be able to integrate into society at roughly the same time. Failing to address this issue creates a new set of problems that may trigger a return to using the object of addiction.
Successful treatment programs
Effective treatment programs for teenage substance abusers, while employing a range of behavioral and medical approaches, are having the greatest success by incorporating the following:
- Immediate and consistent access to an adult role model
- Creating bonds with family, teachers, and classmates
By centering on these factors, therapy is able to focus assimilate features found in those teenagers who do not gravitate toward experimentation. In addition, mental health professionals work to support other conditions that help with recovery. The Office of Drug Control Policy stresses the importance of family unity and the skills it engenders, These include:
- Empowerment and building a sense of control over conditions and the environment in which the patient exists
- Development of coping skills
- Developing organizational skills
- Development and establishing routines
It is important to emphasize that only two parent homes have any hope of avoiding addiction. Single parent families have as great a likelihood of both staving off substance abuse and addiction, and helping the addicted member recover his or her life; it is the willingness and resolve of the participants that is important.