Teens are at the age of vulnerability to substance use problems like addiction and drug misuse. The decisions they make when it comes to drug and alcohol use can affect them for years to come. Adolescents who are exposed to drug and alcohol use at an early age may be more likely to struggle with substance use disorders (SUDs) in the future. Addressing these issues in teens is essential, and drug education and early intervention can help.

Learn more about addressing addiction issues among teens and adolescents as a parent.

Why Are Teens at Risk?

It’s important for parents and people who look out for teenagers to be vigilant about drug and alcohol use in and around their children. There are various parenting and teaching styles, and many believe that it’s important for teens to make mistakes and learn from them. While that might be true in some situations, drug and alcohol use may not be one of them.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, parental supervision and anti-drug policies at school are important protective factors against addiction. Likewise, a lack of parental supervision and high drug availability at school are significant risk factors.

Early exposure to drugs and alcohol may lead to an increased risk of substance use disorders in the future. According to a 2013 study, adolescents showed to have an increased risk of substance use disorders if they were exposed to drugs or alcohol before age 16.

The study showed that 50 percent of adolescents with no previous conduct issues were still at an increased risk of substance use after drug or alcohol exposure. The study also noted that their risk for other issues like sexually transmitted diseases, crime, and early pregnancy was also elevated.

Alcohol is the most commonly abused substance among adolescents. The 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, around 2.2 million adolescents between ages 12 and 17 drank alcohol in the month before the survey. As many as 1.2 million adolescents binge drank in the same time period.

Recognizing a Substance Use Disorder

A substance use disorder is an official diagnosis in the DSM-5. It is separated into three categories based on severity: mild, moderate, and severe. A doctor or clinician can diagnose a SUD by considering a list of criteria that may point to an addiction. The criteria include 11 signs of a SUD, including things like trying and failing to cut back, cravings and compulsions to use, and struggling at work or school.

The severity of a substance use disorder can be determined by several of these factors that apply to a person. Six or more factors point to a severe disorder, four to five point to a moderate disorder, and two or three indicate a mild disorder.

This list of diagnostic factors is a tool that’s used by a professional while working with a patient. If you are a parent observing behaviors in a teen, and you’re concerned that they may have a SUD, it may be difficult to discern things like cravings and compulsions unless your teen tells you about it. However, there are some other signs and symptoms that are common among people with a substance use disorder that may be observable. These signs may include:

  • Denial of a substance use problem
  • Lying about or hiding drug use
  • Hiding drugs or alcohol around the house
  • Changes in friend groups
  • Continuing to use despite consequences
  • Frequent intoxication
  • Memory issues

Avoid Enabling Behaviors

Enabling is a common word used in the context of addiction, especially when it comes to the family members and loved ones of people with SUDs. Enabling refers to any behavior that shields someone from the consequences of their addiction and behaviors.

As a parent, protecting your child is likely your first and deepest instinct, but shielding them from consequences that addiction causes makes it easier and more comfortable for them to continue in active addiction. Enabling behavior comes in many forms, including:

  • Giving someone with SUD money or resources
  • Refraining from expressing emotions about a person’s SUD
  • Ignoring an SUD or its consequences
  • Lying to others to protect someone with an SUD
  • Blaming problems on others or yourself before the person with the SUD
  • Putting your own needs aside to help someone with an SUD
  • Making excuses for unacceptable behavior

Avoiding enabling behavior is even more complicated as a parent of an adolescent because you have to protect them to some extent. However, you can make firm rules clear. For instance, you can tell your teen that you will refuse to lie to cover for them. Clear house rules with preset consequences may also be effective in helping you avoid enabling. You must follow through with the consequences that you’ve set. Finally, insisting on addressing any substance use disorder with the appropriate treatment is important.

What is Codependency?

Enabling parents often fall into the common trap of codependency, which is an unhealthy emotional reliance on another person in a way that hurts one or both people. It’s common among mothers of addicted people, but fathers also routinely develop codependence.

In some cases, codependent parents may be resistant to treatment options that would separate them from their addicted loved one, even if it’s the best thing for them.

Signs of codependency may include the enabling behaviors previously mentioned, along with some other signs. Codependent people may feel an exaggerated sense of responsibility for the addicted person, a need for approval, a sense of guilt associated with standing up for their own needs, and an intense fear of losing the relationship.

If you feel you might be codependent as a parent, it may be beneficial to seek counseling for yourself while helping your teen get treatment.

How Addiction Treatment Works

Treating a substance use disorder is complicated and involves several levels of care based on a person’s needs. Many teens require early intervention services, which is the lowest level of care in addiction treatment and falls under the outpatient category.

Early intervention often involves confronting substance misuse and education about drugs and alcohol. The goal of early intervention is to stop a person from continuing on a path that will likely lead to more severe substance use disorders.

However, if your teen already has a severe substance use disorder, they may still be treated with appropriate levels of care. If your teen is chemically dependent on a drug, or if they have high-level medical needs, they may start with medical detox, the highest level of care. Detox is an inpatient service that involves 24-7 medically managed services.

These services might include medication and other clinical services. As you progress, you may move on to an inpatient program with medical monitoring or clinical management. Inpatient treatment is for people that have high-level medical or psychological needs but have stable enough medical conditions to warrant a lower level of care.

As you progress to the point of living on your own, you may move onto outpatient care. Outpatient is split into two categories. Intensive outpatient treatment involves nine or more hours of treatment services each week. Outpatient treatment programs involve fewer than nine hours of treatment each week.

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