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  • A Therapist’s Outlook on Adolescent Substance Use

    Throughout the years the trend of teenage substance use and misuse has evolved, but still remains consistent in its presence in society. There has been a shift through each decade of which substance is primarily utilized and how, seeing the normalization of marijuana in the 1970’s to alcohol in the early 2000’s. Today, there are most substances than ever introduced to young people at a very early age.


    Modern day teenagers are experimenting and misusing, typically, multiple substances and doing so in a different manner. For most of the young adults I work with as a substance use therapist, they say that there was never any peer pressure but more of an expectation to use some sort of substance while in high school. People seek treatment for the first time at age 20 because they began using at age 13. In my office, the usual suspects are vaping (various substances that are not always nicotine), marijuana, and prescription medications.


    If a kid begins using drugs at age 13 and continues to do so, when do they become addicted? Honestly, not all do. The first thing to really look at with teenage substance use is whether or not addiction, substance use/misuse, or substance abuse is present. While the terms become interchangeable in some spaces, they usually indicate very different problems.


    If addiction is present, it is best to seek treatment. In most states, parents have the power to seek substance use treatment for teenagers. The teen themselves also hold the power to seek out their own treatment and have more autonomy than what is typically present for other forms of mental health treatment. In 2010, 46% of adolescents seeking substance use treatment was initiated by the juvenile justice system.


    Substance use and abuse can, potentially, be handled in an outpatient manner. There are also support groups for those who do not meet standards for full treatment.


    So what can parents/Caregivers do?

    Working with the addicted population, we often speak on what coulda woulda shoulda happened. These are some repeated statements I’ve gotten from my clients seeking or in recovery.


    • Parents/Caregivers, even if you think that your teenager is not listening to you or does not care what you think or do… they do. They’re much more attuned than you may realize, even if they do not always abide by your rules or listen to your perspective.

    • It is always best to avoid using harsh, degrading, or hurtful phrases and words. When people are upset or hurt, falling back on poor behavior is so simple. Your teenagers will continue to carry those words for a long time, thus increasing their hurt and pain. I have yet to meet an addicted person who fully loves and respects themselves, so rewriting the internal dialogue becomes difficult. It can start in the home by acknowledging the problem and not degrading the person.

    • Know that their use is not your fault, nor is it a testament to your parenting. There’s very rarely any one person or event to blame for someone’s use of substances. Taking on the full weight of this problem will only bring you down and make addressing its complexities more difficult. Allow yourself and your child the gift of grace and understanding.

    • Choose actions that honor your boundaries while also not setting distancing and hurtful actions. A lot of parents reach their wit’s end in this situation and have to consider the safety and stability of the rest of the family, but some dramatic measures are more hurtful than helpful. Mainly, it’s best to avoid “kicking them out” or allowing homelessness as an option. Nothing perpetuates the thought that they are not wanted or worthy more than being (in a teenage perspective) “thrown away.” A variation of this approach should be a calm and direct conversation that expresses care and concern while simultaneously addressing the necessary changes and expectations of the youth. This could mean formal treatment, psychological evaluations, loss of privileges, etc.


    Most importantly, the take-away is that adolescent substance use is very serious and can mature into a very serious problem. While parents often feel helpless during this process, know that there are steps you can take and people who can help you. If you have a child using substances, reach out to a local therapist or treatment program.

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