The Challenge of Teens and Current Treatment Models for Addiction

The Challenge of Teens and Current Treatment Models for Addiction


Are current treatment models actually detrimental to teens in recovery? That’s the conclusion of this article, which states that putting troubled teens into treatment actually produces more drug and alcohol use than not giving them any treatment at all. It seems unbelievable that we could actually make the outcome worse by trying to help, but that is what the data seems to be saying here. But why?

We need new treatment models, but especially for teens

One reason that teens do worse in group therapy style treatment is because they tend to be more heavily influenced by their peers than adults are. This creates problems because there is a tendency in early recovery to glorify drug and alcohol use, especially among young people. Apparently this has led to the teens in the therapy groups to eventually use drugs together.

Now this might not be true in every case but the data still supports the idea that group therapy and other “adult treatment methods” actually make matters worse for teens in recovery. The only thing that seemed to help was family therapy.

Let’s break down some of these ideas:

1) The data in this article is a bit skewed, because part of the problem with teens in recovery and treating them for addiction is that many of them–possibly even the majority of them–are not addicts at all. They are just kids being kids, and happen to be screwing around with getting drunk or high and they got caught. Now in some cases, the kid will be an addict, or might turn into one in the future, but a lot of these troubled teens are not really “true addicts.”

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2) In cases when a troubled teen really isn’t an addict, but is just experimenting with drugs and alcohol, then family therapy makes more sense, and I can see how sending them to meetings with other “real addicts” could be a step in the wrong direction.

3) The real problem is that you have a large group of teens who get caught in this fashion, most of which are not true addicts and alcoholics, and they are getting diverted into the treatment system. We don’t want to just send them to jail and kick them out of school, so we send them to treatment….even though they don’t necessarily need a life-changing program.

4) For the handful of “true addicts and alcoholics” that are in their teens, existing treatment options are inadequate, in my opinion. The problem is the high level of peer influence, as well as the amount of importance that younger people place on their friendships. Because of this, there is probably no treatment model that will produce decent success rates if young people still have their existing friendships intact when they get through with the program. In other words, if young people don’t change their friends in early recovery, they are doomed to relapse. This is particularly difficult to overcome, especially for teens. The idea of replacing an entire group of friends becomes somewhat easier after the teenage years.

Because of this, I would suggest the following ideas:

1) The younger you are, the more you need long term treatment (if you are a true addict) – to help build new relationships in recovery, and also as a way to simply lift someone out of their old lifestyle. Long term treatment can provide a “clean break” that a young person might need to get away from the influence of old friends.

2) Interventions at the public level (like when schools catch kids with drugs or alcohol) need to reconsider the zero tolerance policy, because it seems to be diverting non-addicts into real treatment programs, which in turn is not helping the kids or the treatment program (including the effectiveness of the treatment program).

3) A potential model for treating young people should probably be even more slanted towards creating a new life in recovery as opposed to the usual “coping strategies + spiritual awakening” ideas.


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