4 Ways Addiction Recovery is Challenging for Teens

4 Ways Addiction Recovery is Challenging for Teens

Although many people assume teens are too young to develop substance use disorders, it’s actually not that uncommon. The 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that about seven percent of teens–more than 1.7 million individuals–between the ages of 12 and 17 met the criteria for a substance use disorder. Even if a teen doesn’t technically have a substance use disorder, frequent substance use can have serious consequences, including delayed cognitive development, riskier behaviors, and increased risk of addiction later in life. According to the CDC, about two-thirds of twelfth graders have tried alcohol and half have tried marijuana. People between the ages of 12 and 20 consume about a tenth of the alcohol consumed in the US. If your teen is drinking or using drugs, you should take it seriously. Teens also face some specific challenges in recovering from substance use issues, including the following.

Teen brains are not yet fully developed.

We typically consider adulthood to begin at age 18 but humans don’t actually reach cognitive maturity until about age 25. This is why insurance rates drop at age 25 and it becomes cheaper to rent a car; actuaries have long known what cognitive scientists have verified in recent years. Cognitive development is a complex process in which the brain furiously builds new connections in the early years of life, then gradually eliminates the connections that are seldom used. Pruning away these unused connections increases cognitive efficiency. 

In the final stages of this process, neurons are coated in fatty insulation, called myelin, which helps speed up communication between different parts of the brain. The prefrontal cortex is the last area of the brain to be fully myelinated. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for higher-order executive functions such as judgment, foresight, planning, attention, emotional regulation, working memory, and self-control. These functions are all crucial for a successful recovery from addiction. Teens certainly possess these functions, to varying degrees, but they are not yet working at full capacity. What’s more, habitual drug or alcohol use may impair cognitive development, which is one reason early substance use is thought to increase the risk of addiction later in life.

Teens are more vulnerable to peer pressure.

All of us are more vulnerable to peer pressure than we like to believe but teens are more vulnerable to peer pressure than anyone. The teen years are when most of us shift toward spending more time around our friends than around our family. Not only are we more exposed to the influence of our friends but we also feel a greater need to win their approval. We’ve all been asked at some point by a parent or teacher if we’d jump off a bridge if our friends did it and, according to research, we probably would. In lab experiments, teen judgment about hypothetical situations doesn’t seem to lag much behind adults and yet empirical evidence shows teens are more prone to risky behavior, including substance use, unprotected sex, and criminal behavior. The company of peers seems to make all the difference. What seems to be happening is that teens’ brains are primed to expect positive reinforcement from their peers for risky behavior.  In other words, it’s not that teens are incapable of anticipating consequences; it’s that they want validation from their peers more than they fear those consequences. 

The good news is that peer pressure might also work to teens’ advantage in recovery. If they spend time around other sober teens and feel connected to that group, they may expect validation for, say, riding out a craving, rather than for engaging in substance use.

Teens are more prone to mental health issues.

About half of adults with a substance use disorder have a co-occurring mental health issue but in teens, that number is over 60 percent. Common co-occurring mental health issues include major depression, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, and psychotic disorders. Teens are more prone to developing anxiety disorders and depression than adults are. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 31 percent of adults will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives but nearly 32 percent of adolescents will experience an anxiety disorder between the ages of 13 and 18. Similarly, about seven percent of adults have experienced a depressive episode in the past year compared to 13.3 percent of teens between the ages of 12 and 17. Perhaps even more significantly, while about 65 percent of depressed adults received treatment, less than 40 percent of depressed teens received treatment. Substance use in teens, although problematic in itself, is often a red flag for other issues.

Teens have fewer treatment options. 

Although there are about 1.7 million teens in the US with substance use disorders, there are actually very few programs designed to treat substance use in teens. The 2010 National Survey of Substance Abuse Treatment Services found that less than 30 percent of facilities offered special programming for adolescents. Not only is that number low but it had declined since 2003. Less than 10 percent of teens who need treatment for a substance use disorder ever get it and many programs treat adolescents the same as they do adults, despite teens having different needs, some of which are explained above.

At Patrick Hart Consultants, we provide a number of different services to fit the needs of each individual client. Among these, are helping you choose a treatment provider, helping you develop a treatment plan, helping you establish post-treatment support, and ensuring continuity among the different elements of treatment. Contact us today at 844-2627970 or Info@PatrickHartConsultants.com or explore our website for more information.

AUTHOR: Patrick Hart Consultants