Identifying substance abuse in teens can be tricky

Substance abuse disorders affect teens and adults. Knowing the signs and how to support teens can help them on their road to recovery.

  • Substance abuse impacts a teen’s developing brain.
  • Teens may have different signs of substance abuse.
  • Innovations in treating teens focus on trust and communication.

[3 MIN READ]

Nearly 20 million individuals, ages 12 and older, had a substance abuse disorder in 2017, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). That’s an astounding number of families, friends and communities impacted by illicit alcohol and drug use.

Fortunately, there is help available for individuals who struggle with substance abuse. We recently sat down with Danilynn (Dani) Benavente, SUDP, at Providence to discuss how we can support teens, adults who struggle with addiction and their loved ones.

What are some of the differences between treating substance abuse in adults and youth?

There are several differences to keep in mind when treating and supporting an adult with substance abuse compared to a teenager or adolescent, including:

  • Brain growth
  • Family support
  • Mentor support
  • Freedom to make their own choices
  • Peer and social group support

Here’s what I mean:

Brain growth and teens

The brain of an adolescent or teen is still developing and does so until around age 25. The prefrontal cortex, which helps make rational choices, is still “under” construction. That means their decisions are often based on emotions, not logic. It also puts teens and young adults at a higher risk of using drugs and becoming addicted.

The brain of an adolescent or teen is still developing and does so until around age 25. I often describe it as a game of Tetris: The pieces of their brain are working to align themselves to fit together. 

Alcohol and drugs can interfere more severely with a teen’s developing brain. I often describe it as a game of Tetris: The pieces of their brain are working to align themselves to fit together. Abusing drugs and alcohol can affect the brain’s ability to connect the pieces together and grow the way it needs to, leading to long-term effects.

Family support and addiction

Teens and young adults are generally still at home, under the care of others. Most of the time, that built-in support system is beneficial to teens, as it offers up the love and support anyone needs to overcome addiction.

Connecting with a mentor

We all recognize the impact a positive role model can have on a student or teen’s life. The same is true when they are struggling with addiction. A trusted adult – whether that’s a school counselor, teacher or coach – is one more support and resource.

Limited freedoms

While having a support system at home is helpful for many teens, it can be harmful in some cases. This is particularly true if the adolescent is in an abusive or unhealthy home. Adults who struggle with substance abuse are better able to remove themselves from toxic situations, unlike teens who rely on their families for many basic needs. This is also another reason a mentor is so helpful to teens.

Adults who struggle with substance abuse are better able to remove themselves from toxic situations, unlike teens who rely on their families for many basic needs.

Finding the right peer group

A young person’s social identity is often tied to spending time with friends. Sometimes, it’s their peer group that has exposed them to drugs or alcohol. A group of friends who are understanding, supportive and hold someone with substance abuse disorder accountable is very important. It’s through these solid friendships that will help teens establish healthy relationships and improve their self-confidence.

What are the signs of substance abuse?

There are many different signs that friends, family and loved ones may notice when someone (no matter their age) struggles with substance abuse. Some of these signals may be mild, while others are very blatant and severe. The most common red flags of addiction include:

  • Being less productive – Falling behind in school, lack of interest or participation in activities could be red flags.
  • Changing social groups – Youth who use will start to spend time with others who use as well.
  • Family issues – Adults and teens who use often start to withdraw from loved ones. Lying and sneaking around may become common and can cause mistrust and distance among family members who were once close.
  • Poor mental health – Drugs and alcohol often make depression and anxiety worse, not better so many people who abuse drugs and alcohol hope.

When you approach an adolescent, it’s important to use a tone that is not aggressive or punitive. 

How should you approach someone with a substance abuse disorder, based on their age?

It can be very hard to express to a loved one or friend that you have concerns about their drug or alcohol use. When you approach an adolescent, it’s important to use a tone that is not aggressive or punitive. That includes:

  • Do not yell or get angry
  • Find a private space where you can talk
  • Listen to understand, not criticize
  • Offer help, but try not to force it or fix it

What’s the latest in treating teens with substance abuse?

No one likes to feel forced to do something and the same is especially true for youth with substance abuse disorder. Many teens and adolescences in treatment are not there by their own choice. They may be in treatment because of legal trouble, not being able to go back to school or because their parents made them.

Teens in treatment may shut down, lie about use and be unreceptive to support. Because of this, counselors have started to look at other ways to approach young adults. This includes harm reduction programs and behavior change models, which help reduce apprehension or stigma around treatment.

When we focus on education and guidance, we allow teens to feel empowered. They explore the pros and cons of use and make their own choices.

When we focus on education and guidance, we allow teens to feel empowered. They explore the pros and cons of use and make their own choices. I have seen firsthand how this approach helps teens feel more relaxed, rather than defensive or fearful. And when they see that their counselors truly want to support them, their level of trust goes up. This environment allows them to talk about their substance abuse and any other area of life they may struggle with.

Watching them grow, find their strength and overcome adversity is truly remarkable.

What other areas might be addressed during substance abuse treatment?

Substance abuse disorder doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Adults and teens may also struggle with mental health, physical health and other addiction. For example, someone with substance abuse may also have:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Mental health disorder
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Poor nutrition
  • Cross-addiction

A trained and experienced counselor can offer a comprehensive evaluation of a teen or adult’s overall health and make recommendations for additional treatment as it’s needed.

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

The Providence Body & Mind Team is dedicated to providing medically-sound, data-backed insights and advice on how to reach and maintain your optimal health through a mixture of exercise, mindfulness, preventative care and healthy living in general.

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