Addiction in adolescence can be terrifying, both for the teen in need of treatment and for the parents who are expected to choose the right program to help that teen. Parents with deep fears may find the answers to these common questions helpful, but they should also remember that they’re not required to go through this process alone.

The child’s doctor, therapist or caseworker might also be a vital source of information on available programs and therapy choices. Addiction treatments are personal, and in general, it’s best to get information from a source who knows the teen and is able to provide information that is specifically applicable to that teen, and the addiction issue the teen faces.

Who needs teen rehab?

Rehabilitation programs are designed to help teens who have, or who are developing, an addiction to drugs and/or alcohol. Both teens who want to stop, and teens who don’t believe that abstinence is important, can benefit from treatment. Here, they’ll learn more about addiction, and they’ll pick up tools they can use to help prevent a relapse to substance abuse. Every teen who abuses substances needs to go through rehab, but some teens don’t need medical management as the process moves forward. The teen’s doctor can provide advice in this area.

What should I look for in a treatment program?

In general, the most successful programs are customizable. Each addiction is different, and each teen will respond to therapies in a slightly different way. Programs that provide a significant amount of options, tailoring the approach to meet the needs of the teen as an individual, tend to be more effective than programs that use a one-size-fits-all approach. Staying enrolled in the program is pivotal, as people who drop out of care too early tend to fall back into drug use. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, programs should provide some form of care for at least 90 days, if not longer.

What credentials and licenses should I look for?

If the teen is being given medications for withdrawal, those medications should be prescribed by medical doctors. The requirements for mental health services are a bit less clear. In fact, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the educational requirements for substance abuse counselors can vary widely from state to state. Instead of focusing on the individual counselors and medical staff, parents can focus on the facility itself, ensuring that the practice is licensed by the state and isn’t the focus of any sort of investigation.

What is the difference between residential and outpatient treatment?

The main difference involves where the teen sleeps at night. In a residential program, the teen lives in the facility for a specific period of time, and doesn’t return home until the treatment is complete. In an outpatient program, the teen continues to live at home while receiving addiction care. The therapies provided in an inpatient program and an outpatient program are often quite similar, if not identical. Only the setting where the care is provided differs.

How do I hold an intervention?

In an intervention, the family talks to the teen in a clear and direct way about the impact the addiction is having on the family. At the end of a successful intervention, the teen understands why treatment is important, and then agrees to enter a program. Interventions can be an amazingly effective way to encourage a teen to enter a treatment program, but the conversation can quickly spin out of control if the family doesn’t plan ahead. Hiring an intervention specialist may be an excellent way to prepare. This professional can help guide the family in developing the script for the talk, and then the specialist can hold several rehearsals to help the family practice their lines. On the day of the intervention, the family will know just what to say and how to say it in order to encourage the teen to enter a formal treatment program.

How can we keep a teen addict on track educationally?

Addiction can zap a student’s ability to retain new information, and students with strong addictions may skip class altogether, so they can stay home and abuse the drugs they prefer. As part of the rehabilitation program for addiction, the teen will be encouraged to participate fully in an academic program, either in the community or within the walls of the addiction treatment center. Parents have a large role to play here. According to a study published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, students who begin to improve in their courses tend to stay in school, while those who do not improve tend to drop out. By encouraging the teen to study, and praising any progress made, parents can motivate the teens to stay in school and keep learning.

How should family members be involved?

Parents have a strong role to play, helping to motivate the teen to stay in therapy and follow the rules of the program to the letter. But the extended family might also provide needed support. Older siblings may participate in family therapy sessions, sharing their own stories of addiction. Grandparents may provide stability when relationships between the teen and the parents are strained. And even younger siblings can help by providing affection and unconditional love. Families that share a history of abuse and/or dysfunction may have a significant amount of therapy to go through together, so they can work through old wounds and come up with new ways of communicating with one another.

How can we pay for rehab?

The answer to this question will vary greatly from program to program. For example, some residential programs for addiction allow families to make payments on the care provided. By contrast, some other residential programs require families to pay the fees up front, and no financing is available. This is an issue that should be clearly stated in all admission forms, so families will know exactly what they will be required to pay and when that payment will be due.

Will insurance cover treatment?

Some insurance programs provide generous benefits for teen addiction treatment. Other programs provide reimbursement for medications and limited therapy, but they may not cover the costs of room and board required by a residential program. If the teen has an underlying mental health issue, however, that residential care might be paid for a short period of time. Families should consult their insurance companies directly for more information. If treatment isn’t covered, the teen’s doctor may be able to work with the insurance company and obtain an exception that could cause the company to pay for the required treatment.

What are the signs and symptoms of an addiction?

According to the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, teens who exhibit these symptoms may be abusing alcohol and/or drugs:

  • Changes in friendships or spending time with other teens who seem impaired or high
  • Lowered grades
  • Increased need for privacy or secrecy
  • Smell of incense or perfume in the teen’s room, to mask the scent of smoke or burning drugs
  • Use of eye drops, to cover up bloodshot eyes or dilated pupils
  • Talking in code, using masked words to covertly discuss drugs with friends
  • Theft of drugs from the family medicine cabinet
  • Theft of money or valuables, so the teen can buy drugs
  • Carelessness with grooming
  • Withdrawal or sadness

What recovery options are there?

There are a variety of proven methods that can be used to fight an addiction issue in teens. Most teens benefit from counseling sessions, where they learn the fundamentals of addiction and how they can control their cravings. Some teens also benefit from support groups, such as Narcotics Anonymous or SMART Recovery. And finally, some teens benefit from medications that can soothe irritation and cravings for drugs. Any, or all, of these approaches could provide lifesaving help.

How can I avoid my teen relapsing?

Addiction is considered a chronic condition that the teen will learn to manage, but may never completely cure. Given this definition, relapse can be likely. The numbers seem to back up this theory. For example, a study in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs found that 79 percent of teens who completed a substance abuse program used alcohol within the following year. Nearly a quarter of these teens used drugs in addition to alcohol. So the emphasis should move from preventing any relapse, which may not be possible, to stopping one slip from becoming a full-blown addiction again. Parents who keep the lines of communication open, and increase the level of care provided if a slip occurs, can do their part to minimize the damage. Some teens may need higher doses of medications or more therapy sessions per week, and a relapse can help parents spot that issue and provide a much-needed change in course.

What teen support groups are there?

Traditional support groups based on a 12-step model, such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, have been modified to meet the needs of teen addicts. Here, teens meet in groups and they discuss their stories of addiction and the methods they’ve used to help control their addictions. While some teens truly enjoy 12-step meetings, these groups do place an emphasis on relying on the help of a “higher power,” and some teens find this off-putting or overly religious. These teens may benefit from secular support groups such as SMART Recovery. This organization has also modified its programming to specifically meet the needs of adolescents in recovery.


What is holistic treatment?

The term “holistic medicine” often comes with a great deal of confusion. Some medical providers may not know exactly what the term means, either, according to a study published in the journal Health Policy. In this study, the professionals who identified themselves as “holistic physicians” used a wide variety of different techniques and had many different levels of education. In the past, the term was used to describe treatments that encompassed the person as a whole. Someone with an addiction, for example, would also be treated for physical ailments and mental illnesses under this definition of holistic treatment. But, some providers use the term to describe treatments that fall outside the mainstream Western cannon of medicine. A person with addiction might use biofeedback treatments, massage and yoga under this definition of holistic treatment.

Does my teen need detox?

Teens who have abused drugs or alcohol for long periods of time, and are therefore unaccustomed to going more than a few hours in a sober state, might benefit from supervised detoxification programs. This is a question the teen’s doctor is best qualified to answer.

How can we decide on a treatment program?

Parents aren’t alone when it comes to choosing programs to help their teens. Family doctors, caseworkers and therapists may all provide their expertise to assist the family in choosing a program that contains the right components to help the teen heal. Financial matters might also play a role. In general, the longer the teen stays in therapy, the better the outcome will be. Families who choose expensive programs, and then shorten the length of stay to cut costs, may be making a mistake. It’s better to choose an affordable program that the family can afford for the teen to complete.

What alternative treatment methods are there?

Many addiction treatment programs integrate complementary therapy techniques to help teens to recover. For example, some programs include relaxation techniques, such as drum circles. While it might seem, on first glance, that these programs are frivolous and designed only to keep the teen entertained, there are some benefits to programs like this. For example, a study in the American Journal of Public Health found that drumming helps to increase the sensation of relaxation in teen addicts, helping them to connect with themselves and others. While not all complementary therapies can be supported by scientific studies like this, parents should ask for proof of effectiveness before agreeing to enroll their child in this complementary therapy. In addition, it should never be used as a replacement for traditional care.

What are the success rate of different programs?

Studying the effectiveness of treatment programs is incredibly difficult. For example, two people of the same age might be given exactly the same therapy for addiction, and the treatment might work in one person and not in the other. That’s why, in study after study, effectiveness swings wildly from about 30 percent to about 70 percent, with no type of program seeming more effective than another type, according to a review of the research published in the journal Adolescence. When it comes to addiction, treatment truly is personal and research on effectiveness might not be helpful or even meaningful.

Should parents be involved in the recovery process?

Yes, parents should always be involved. If the teen lives at home during therapy, the parents will need to provide an environment free of drugs and alcohol, and they’ll need to ensure that the teen talks about cravings and issues before he or she thinks about relapsing. If the teen is going through a residential program for addiction, parents will still need to be involved, providing support, love and encouragement to help the teen move through the therapy.

What if my teen has co-occurring conditions?

Teens with addictions commonly have other mental illnesses at the same time. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment found that 63.7 percent of teens in an addiction program also had another mental illness. Both conditions must be treated at the same time, in order to provide the teen with real relief. Allowing the mental illness to go unchecked could cause a relapse, while treating only the mental illness could allow the addiction to grow stronger. Many programs provide therapy for co-occurring conditions.

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