Guide for Parents of Addicted Children and Teens

Being a parent can be tough at times, whether our children are grown adults of still in their years of adolescence. This reality becomes all too difficult when the issue of substance abuse and addiction arises.

Although science has made extraordinary progress in the research on addiction, no one yet fully understands why some become addicted to a substance and others do not.

However, there is data available that suggests an area of vulnerability that may place people, especially adolescents at risk. Working together as a family can have the best outcome in fighting back against youth drug and alcohol abuse.

What is Addiction?

Drug and alcohol use alters a person’s neurological chemistry in a way that makes stopping difficult and even impossible for some who want to stop.

For this reason, exactly – addiction is considered a brain disorder that is fatal if left untreated.

Dangers for Drug-Addicted Children

Although, individuals at all ages are impacted by the harmful consequences of substance abuse and addiction, teenagers are particularly at risk. Teens who abuse drugs and alcohol often act out, struggle in school and many drop out before reaching high school graduation.

Because a teenager’s brain is still in its developmental stages, drug use can cause harmful long-term changes. One of the main issues of substance use among our youth is the significant increase of risk in developing psychological dependence.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse, NIDA shows images of brain scans done for research studies on addiction. The brain images show how individuals with an addicted brain have physical changes.

These physical changes take place in specific areas that are crucial to decision making, judgement, memory, learning and behavioral control. Ultimately, the images presented clearly explain the disorder as well as the compulsive nature of alcoholism and addiction.

Why Substance Abuse is a Problem

Typically, a kid’s initial decision to do drugs or drink is voluntary. However, with the continuation of substance abuse, the ability to exert self-control can become undoubtedly impaired. The inability to control one’s drug and alcohol use is the fundamental aspect of addiction.

Reasons behind teen substance abuse can vary greatly. Still, there are several environmental, genetic and social aspects that can contribute to destructive behavior that will eventually lead to the development of addiction.

Traumatic Experiences

“Many adolescents who abuse drugs have a history of physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse or other trauma.”

– NIDA, 2014

Mental Health

Teens who struggle with mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, ADHD and other emotional issues often self-medicate with use of drugs and alcohol.

Home Environment

“Negative life events such as loss of parent, parental divorce and conflict, low parental support, physical violence and abuse, emotional abuse and neglect, isolation and deviant affiliation, and single-parent family structure have all been associated with increased risk of substance abuse.”

-National Institute of Health, 2008

Social Influences
  • Peer pressure
  • Social media
  • Being bullied
  • Access to drugs


Types of Substance Abuse


Over 257,000 adolescents were current heavy alcohol users (SAMHSA, 2014).


In 2015, 276,000 adolescents were current non-medical users of painkillers, with about 122,000 reporting an addiction to prescription painkillers (American Society of Addiction Medicine, 2016).


An estimated 169,000 adolescents abused prescription stimulants; and 45,000 were users of methamphetamine (SAMHSA, 2014).


Approximately 41,000 adolescents currently used sedatives for non-medical reasons (SAMHSA, 2014).

Suspecting Drug Use

When looking for signs and symptoms of drinking and drug use, substance abuse, it is generally best to identify signs that are substance-specific. For example – signs of stimulant abuse or signs of opioid abuse.

Indicators of substance abuse vary from personal appearance, physical health, emotional state, cognition, behavior, occupational status, academic performance to normal habits at home.

In a nutshell, you’ll want to keep an eye out for physical, behavioral, psychological warning signs. If you have a suspicion that your loved one is on drugs, don’t second-guess yourself – you may be right.

How to Talk to Teens About Drugs

Talking to your teen in an aim of preventing substance abuse is important. Equally so – if you think that your loved one has a drug or alcohol problem, it is necessary that you sit down and talk with them.

You may be wondering – what are some suggested punishments when you catch your kids doing drugs? If your teen is drinking or using drugs there are a few things that you can do to address the problem.

• Restrict privileges (refrain from taking all freedoms)
• Allow participation in healthy activities
• Don’t prohibit all social contact
• Keep it short-term

Although it is necessary to speak up and discuss your concerns and offer support, it is critical to avoid a judgmental approach. Speaking up doesn’t always solve the problem entirely, so being prepared for denial of any claimed substance abuse is helpful. For parents – vigilance of any unusual behaviors and quickly seeking help for your teen is paramount.

Help for Addicted Children

Teen substance use should be identified and addressed in a timely manner. Drugs and alcohol effect a young-persons brain radically and can last a life-time.

The damaging effects often times spread into many aspects of a persons life. Substance abuse can also interfere with the family system, positive relationships with peers, and overall academic performance.

In fact, many adults that have developed a substance use disorder, claim to have started using drugs or alcohol during adolescence. We want to stress the importance of identifying and addressing any substance use with an intervention as early as possible.

If you are concerned about having an intervention of behalf of your teen’s substance use, seeking professional help may minimize stress. The NIDA reports state that annual medical visits are a great way to have your kid screened for any involvement in drug or alcohol use.

Additionally, a health care provider is able to assess your teens current status and provide resources to outside services, such as family counseling or substance abuse treatment programs.

Family Counseling for Substance Abuse

If your teenager is having problems with drugs or alcohol, family involvement is crucial and should take place as soon as possible. Substance abuse is not something to take lightly and getting family counseling can be a good starting point to tackle the problem.

Family counseling that focuses on teen behavioral issue is an available option. Counseling for the family engages everyone, including parents, brothers or sisters as well as any one close to him or her.

“Involving the family can be particularly important in adolescent substance abuse treatment. – NIDA”

Given teenagers generally, live with a parent(s), he or she often is subject to parental rules, controls and even support. Family counseling provides therapy that touches on a wide range of issues in addition to the concerning substance use.

Matters addressed in sessions mostly include familial communication patterns and household conflicts as well as any co-occurring mental health, learning and behavioral disorders. At the same time, counselors involve subjects such as concerns with school or work attendance and peer influences.

Thanks to research focused on addiction and families -there are a number of family-based treatments utilized in therapeutic counseling today.

• Family Behavior Therapy – FBT
• Brief Strategic Family Therapy – BSFT
• Functional Family Therapy – FFT
• Multidimensional Family Therapy – MDFT

Intervention for Addicts

Even if your teen is not yet addicted, there are quite a few benefits that can result from holding an intervention for his or her substance abuse.

When afflicted by a substance use disorder can end up a reality for anyone. The disorder level of severity can range anywhere from problematic usage to the complete development of addiction.

Fortunately, evidence-based research has allowed doctors and healthcare professional who specialize in addiction to provide effective treatment to those in need. substance use disorders can be treated with success at any stage of severity as well as at any age.

For teens -experimentation or not – the use of drugs or alcohol is a problem. Alongside experimental and recreational use of substances is associated with exposure to dangerous environments and people.

Exposure to drug using environments at a young age is closely tied to an increase in risky behaviors and continuation of substance abuse into a kid’s future. Teens should be monitored, and appropriate action should be taken if a problem is recognized.

Parents – addiction must not be underestimated.

If drug-taking behavior and isolation are present in your child’s life, you may benefit from reaching out for qualified help. If your family’s currently getting counseling services, working with the counselor can help considerably.

If working with a family counselor is not an option, contacting a professional who specializes in addiction will provide guidance where it’s needed. An addiction professional can also help you and your family get in touch with a certified interventionist near you.

Family Interventionists

Feeling pressured by the family plays a necessary role in treatment entry for teenagers. Similarly, family pressure and support assist in a loved one remaining in addiction treatment until completion.

Its essential to understand that most children with substance use or alcohol use disorders don’t reckon they need treatment; And in turn, won’t seek help on their own. The number one goal of staging a family intervention is getting your child or teen to see the problem and accept treatment.

When interventions are staged with the assistance of a trained specialist, techniques are used to move the meeting in a fluid and effective direction. One of many techniques used by interventionist is motivational interviewing.

By using motivating interviewing during the family meeting, your loved one will be more open to acknowledging the problem and accepting help. Ideally, it is best to find a mutual ground and understanding with your child, however, this is not always the case.

“Treatment does not need to be voluntary to be effective.” – NIDA: Principles of Effective Treatment, 2018

Sometimes individuals with addiction are resistant and unwilling to get help. During adolescence, your child is a minor. Therefore, willingness and agreeance to treatment isn’t necessarily a game changer. According to NIDA, studies have shown drug treatment can still be effective if admission is involuntary.

How Does Treatment Work – Will it Help?

Treatment for substance use disorders must be tailored to meet the unique needs of your child or teen. Clinicians start the treatment planning process with a comprehensive assessment. Comprehensive assessments help specialists to identify an individual’s weaknesses and strengths that need to be addressed.

Adequate and quality treatment services consider the stage of development in adolescence, gender, performance in school, family relations and relationships with peers. Other factors vital to effective treatment are culture, ethnicity, the surrounding community and any distinct behavioral or physical challenges present.

Treatment must attend to all the needs of your child. If the care he or she is getting solely focuses on the problem of substance abuse, you are not receiving quality care. The best method to treating addiction involves support of the teen’s greater life needs.

Major life needs are the fundamental aspect of a child’s health and wellness including, psychological, social, medial, housing, transportation, education and legal services. NIDA Principles of Adolescent Substance Use Disorder Treatment states – ‘Failing to address such needs simultaneously could sabotage the adolescent’s treatment success.’

Comorbid Disorders

Among teenagers who engage is drug and alcohol use, mental health issues are common. Effective treatment of addiction in children requires the identification and treatment of any overlapping mental health conditions.

“Adolescents who abuse drugs frequently also suffer from other conditions including depression, anxiety disorders, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder, and conduct problems.’ -NIDA, 2014

Teens who abuse substance need to be screened for psychiatric complications. Moreover, treating psychiatric problems requires integration into the treatment for addiction.

Monitoring Drug Use

Monitoring drug use is important not only at home- it’s needed in substance abuse treatment as well. It isn’t uncommon for teens in recovery from addiction to experience a relapse and return to drug using behaviors.

Triggers are the onset of a relapse back into active substance use. Some triggers include mental or emotional stressors and socializing with old drug-using peers.

If a relapse goes undetected, the consequences can be great. In the event of a drug relapse, your teen will probably need additional treatment services or an adjustment to his or her individualized treatment plan.

Are Adolescent Behavioral Therapies Effective?

Behavioral therapies for teens are known to be effective in addressing drug and alcohol use. Behavioral therapies are provided by clinicians that are trained and specialize in adolescent addictions. Therapy can help teenagers refrain from drug use through use of intervention techniques that strengthen an individual’s overall motivation to change.

Behavioral therapies for youth are often coupled with incentives for remaining abstinent from substances, relapse prevention skill building, coping with drug cravings or triggers, improving problem-solving skills, enhancing interpersonal relationships and replacing substance abuse with beneficial and constructive activities.

Behavioral therapy methods proven to be most effective for treatment of adolescents include group therapy, Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), Adolescent Community Reinforcement Approach (A-CRA), Contingency Management (CM), Motivational Enhancement Therapy (MET), and 12-step Facilitation Therapy.

According to the NIDA, “Behavioral interventions help adolescents to actively participate in their recovery from drug abuse and addiction and enhance their ability to resist drug use.”

Supporting Your Child’s Recovery

To truly support your child’s recovery from addiction, you’ll need to consider all the aspects of care for effective addiction treatment. Research emphasizes the importance of staying in a treatment program for an adequate length of time, and continuing care after the program is complete.

Short-term treatment lengths ultimately depend on the severity and types of problems your child is experiences. Studies also show that outcomes are more positive when an the length of stay in treatment is for at least three or more months.

Due to relapse being a frequent occurrence, more than one stint in treatment is usually needed. Children who have substance use disorders do benefit greatly from continuing care after treatment.

Continuing care includes participation in services such as drug testing, home visits for follow-ups, and family integrated services. Having a healthy support system is a key component to treatment effectiveness and a teens recovery from addiction.

Family-Integrated Treatment

Family and community are indispensable components of treating children and teens with addiction. For recovery, the support of family members is indispensable.

Several evidence-based interventions for children focus on strengthening family relationships. The strengthening of relationships involves improvement of abstinence support as well as overall communication among members.

Community members including but not limited to school counselors, peers and mentors can push teens who need help with addiction to get proper treatment and offer their support during the individual’s journey through and after treatment.

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