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Understanding and treating teen substance abuse

When misused, psychoactive substances can severely negatively affect one’s mental and physical health. The excessive use of substances, which include alcohol and drugs, poses a major threat to an individual’s health and well-being. When not addressed, substance abuse can leave individuals at greater risk of other illnesses, including cognitive and behavioral risks.

Once it spirals out of control, the journey to recovery can become long and difficult. Most adults who become substance abusers are believed to have begun using substances in their teens. This is why mental health providers focus on prevention and early intervention for teens.

How does substance abuse begin?

Substance abuse in the teenage years often begins due to some external influence. The initial intent may simply be to experiment, but substance use at an early age can quickly spiral out of control. Substance abuse in teenagers is particularly alarming, especially considering about half of U.S. teens were found to have used drugs at least once in 2022. Substance use can begin because of:

  • Curiosity regarding the substance
  • Peer pressure and high suggestibility
  • Stressful life circumstances or a stressful experience
  • An underlying mental health condition such as depression or anxiety

First-time substance use simply paves the way for repeated use. Even an initial commitment to “only try it once” may not be sufficient, and a cycle of use can begin.

Risk factors for substance abuse

Certain socio-psychological and even economic factors have a role to play in an individual’s tendency to use or abuse substances. Risk factors make teens more susceptible to substance use and abuse. These can include:

  • Family history of substance abuse, in particular of one or both parents or a sibling
  • Childhood trauma, stressful life situations or instances of abuse
  • A lack of monitoring or a poor social support system
  • Poor family relationships or hostility at home
  • Encouragement from authority figures, such as parents, for the behavior

One or more of these factors can pose a greater risk to a child of turning towards substance abuse. The important thing to remember is to aid recovery rather than blaming or accusing the child, causing more stress.

Identifying signs of substance use

Certain changes in behavior can point to the use of illicit substances. These often stand out as being bizarre, unusual, and unlike the child’s normal behavior or habits. Some of the signs you can look out for include:

  • Plummeting academic performance, such as absenteeism and poor grades
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Secretive behavior, being withdrawn, and reduced socialization
  • Constant fatigue, bloodshot eyes, and poor hygiene

Such signs and behavioral changes may often, but do not always, indicate substance use. Parents should initiate a conversation with their children if they notice such habits. It is important to provide them with a safe space to help them be open. The road to recovery starts with identifying the problem and admitting it exists.

Treatments for teen substance abuse

Psychotherapeutic interventions and medicinal treatments are core components of substance abuse treatment. In addition, it is also important to offer support to the child during recovery.

Therapeutic intervention

Part of the recovery process is the use of talk therapy to help adolescents on the road to recovery. This can include various cognitive and behavioral therapy forms, which target negative behavioral and thought patterns. These ensure that the child does not return to those habits that pose a risk for substance use and abuse. Instead, healthier emotional processing helps children adopt functional thought and behavior patterns.

Social support

Support from one’s family, especially parents, is essential in helping teens recover. They should know that their family will always be there for them. Recovery can be a challenging process, and it is a long-term commitment. A child going through substance withdrawal and treatment needs the help and support of those around them so they can face the challenges of treatment better. Individuals who do not receive such support are more likely to fall back into their old behaviors, as they see little reason to recover or improve.

Helping teens recover

Substance abuse among teens is an issue of rising concern. As their brains are still developing, the use or misuse of any substances is especially detrimental to their mental and physical health. Offering a safe, healthy environment for children, with love and support, is one way to ensure they do not turn towards substance use.

Where substance abuse is suspected, there are a few signs parents can look out for. Offering sympathy and support can help children reach out and ask for help. Any treatment for substance abuse should always be supplemented by continuous support to aid a lifelong recovery period. While recuperating from substance abuse can be difficult, returning to a fulfilling and functional lifestyle is not impossible.

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