The adolescent years are a time of self-discovery, exploring boundaries and personal limitations, and establishing a sense of identity. Unfortunately, for some children, experimenting with drugs or alcohol is part of that journey. Depending on the substance an adolescent uses, drug or alcohol abuse can lead to addiction.
Addiction is a serious mental illness, and discovering that a child has a substance use disorder can be overwhelming. Parents invest a lot of time, effort and energy into guiding their children safely to adulthood. It can be frustrating and discouraging to discover that a child has behaved in a way that’s contrary to their upbringing and their family’s values. The bad news is that early drug abuse directly correlates with substance abuse problems later in life, meaning the addiction may not simply be a phase the child matures out of. Fortunately, there are mental health professionals who provide support for parents of addicts and help families navigate substance use disorder and recovery.
Teen Addiction by the Numbers
Addiction among adolescents isn’t a new phenomenon, but it can still come as a shocking surprise for parents who discover their teen has been abusing a substance. Understanding the statistics on substance abuse among teenagers can help parents remember that they’re not alone, and many families have successfully helped their children recover from addiction.
- According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, one in eight teenagers have abused an illicit substance within the last year, and half of teenagers have misused a drug at least once
- Of those aged 12-17 who’ve used an illicit substance in the last year, 84 percent have abused marijuana
- About one in 10 overdose deaths are among those aged 15-24
- Alcohol is the most abused substance among adolescents
- By 12th grade, over 60 percent of children have abused alcohol
- Nearly 3 percent of 12th graders drink alcohol daily
- Since 1999, the number of opioid overdose deaths increased in those aged 15-24 by 500 percent
- Adolescents who use a prescription opioid according to their doctor’s orders are 33 percent more likely to misuse opioids during adulthood
- More teens die from prescription drug overdoses than heroin and cocaine combined
- 60 percent of teens who abuse prescription drugs get the drugs from friends and family
What Is Addiction?
Addiction is a chronic medical disease that involves functional changes to the brain’s processes for memory, motivation, and reward. It’s characterized by compulsive substance-seeking and use, even when the individual experiences serious negative consequences.
If someone has an addiction, they:
- Are unable to stop using the substance, even if they want to
- Have an increased desire for the substance
- Ignore how the addiction is disrupting their life
- Have impaired self-control when it comes to getting and using the substance
While the initial decision to use a substance is generally voluntary, the addiction itself isn’t a choice. It’s the byproduct of the way a substance changes how the brain and body function. Brain imaging studies administered in people with addictions show physical, measurable changes in areas of the brain that control behavior, learning and memory, decision-making and judgment. That’s why even when someone wants to stop using a substance, they’re typically unsuccessful without help from a medical professional.
There isn’t an easy way to predict who will become addicted to drugs or alcohol. However, certain risk factors may increase the odds of an individual developing a substance use disorder, including:
- Having an older household member who abuses a substance
- Underdeveloped social skills
- Low academic success
- Mental health problems
- Poor parental monitoring and involvement
- Parental reinforcement for substance use
On the other hand, there are protective factors that may prevent some kids from developing an addiction. These include:
- High parental involvement
- School anti-drug policies and resources
- Access to neighborhood resources
- Academic support and achievement
- Positive relationships
- Belief in self-control
How to Talk to Your Kids about Addiction
Addiction can feel like an intimidating topic to tackle. Some parents may feel that they’re unqualified to talk to their kids about drug or alcohol use because of their own experiences with addiction. Other parents may assume that because no one in the family has first-hand experience with addiction, the conversation is unnecessary.
However, research shows that conversations on drug and alcohol use have a significant impact. Curiosity about things such as substance use is normal, and frank, age-appropriate discussions provide a healthy way for exploring that curiosity. Without accurate information from a trusted source, children may fill in the blanks with misinformation that may leave them vulnerable.
While those conversations may feel awkward or unnecessary, the truth is that they’re among the most effective ways to prevent problems down the road. In fact, kids who learn about drug use from their parents are 50 percent less likely to use drugs than those who learn from other sources.
Finding Help for Parents of Addicts
Unfortunately, drug and alcohol use is often seen as a rite of passage for teenagers, causing some people to dismiss serious but highly treatable addictions. While cavalier attitudes about drug use may help parents avoid uncomfortable discussions in the short term, they can be detrimental in the long run. Repeated alcohol or marijuana use, for example, can have a negative impact on brain development and cause problems such as a shortened attention span, difficulty retaining information, and poor judgment.
To avoid these problems, parents should consider having regular, open, and judgment-free discussions on substance use. These discussions should be guided by the issues the child may currently be interacting with. For example, vaping is increasingly becoming a problem in many middle schools. Among older teens, alcohol use in social settings is relatively common. Equipping a child with the information they need can help them make good decisions when they’re facing pressure from friends.
If a child develops an addiction, it’s important to remember that they’re not in control of their substance use. Addiction is an illness, and overcoming it requires ongoing help from an experienced mental health care professional.
During addiction treatment, the child isn’t the only one who needs support; parents and siblings need support, too. Attending support groups for moms of addicts, participating in family therapy sessions and continuing to learn about how to foster a supportive environment for recovery are essential steps to take.
Substance Use and Mental Illness
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, about half of teens who abuse drugs or alcohol have an underlying mental illness. This is so common that in most cases, mental health professionals who treat addiction in teens screen for mental illnesses that may cause or stem from substance use. Some of the most common mental illnesses among teens are generalized anxiety disorder, depression, bipolar disorder and attentive deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. Treating both conditions simultaneously is the most effective option with the highest success rate.
A child that’s being treated for substance use disorder and mental illness typically has a comprehensive treatment plan that includes:
- Detoxification, which may include medication-assisted treatment
- Inpatient or intensive outpatient rehabilitation
- Medications for managing the mental illness
- Supportive housing
- One-on-one therapy
- Group and family therapy
Treatment plans are tailored to the individual to accommodate their unique needs, living situations and school schedules. Depending on their needs, a child may need some or all of these interventions. At FHE, we specialize in providing addiction treatment services to people of all ages. To learn more about our programs, contact us today.