Best Practices in Treating Adolescents Struggling With Drugs

Scientific research has now proven that the human brain can make new neural connections throughout life; however, this does not cancel out the importance of safeguarding healthy brain development during the childhood and teenage years. Adolescents and teens who take in substances — including alcohol, prescription or street drugs — can negatively affect neural development and brain function throughout their life. In fact, use of substances can artificially alter which brain areas are over- or under-utilized. This is especially true in the adolescent brain. Today’s best practices in adolescent and teen drug treatment protocols have developed out of this understanding of these years as critical for brain health and development.

Strong Family Involvement

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse has gathered statistics to support the importance of family involvement in a teen’s life and drug treatment. For example, statistics now show that even a simple activity like participating in family dinners two or three times per week can significantly reduce risk of drug use.

A Non-Traditional Definition of “Family”

The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) provides an overview of the changing definition of “family” in its text, “Substance Abuse Treatment and Family Therapy.” Regardless of whether a teen’s definition of “family” includes biological relatives, caring mentors, non-related peers, teachers, pastors or significant others, what is important in drug treatment is to recognize and include those persons whom the teen considers to be “family.”

Treatment – ASAP and Ongoing

Precisely because the teenage brain is changing and growing so rapidly during the adolescent, teen and young-adult years, the earlier drug intervention and treatment is introduced, the less risk of brain function impairment later in life. As well, because teens can be particularly vulnerable emotionally, ongoing support during the transition and aftercare phases is crucial for maintaining abstinence.

Attention to Co-Occurring Disorders

Many individuals who struggle with drug use and abuse also suffer from co-occurring issues. For instance, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that one in five teens suffer from mild to severe depression. Teens are also susceptible to anxiety, self-harm behaviors (such as cutting or burning), alcohol use, suicidal ideation (thoughts or actions towards suicide) and, of course, drug use. When just one issue is treated as a stand-alone problem, this leaves the teen vulnerable to relapse when other issues surface. For this reason, a comprehensive approach that identifies and addresses each co-occurring disorder is vital to sustained abstinence from drugs.

Community Involvement

Finally, involving the recovering teen in community involvement can provide extra social support and encouragement to stay off drugs and alcohol. In particular, involvement with friends and/or family members in organizations like SADD (Students Against Drunk Driving) and the newer grassroots organization Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) can provide a powerful positive peer pressure-based deterrent against using drugs again.

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