When a teenager begins experimenting with drugs or alcohol, experts refer to this as early initiation. While the teen, and possibly even his parents, may see experimentation as a normal part of adolescent life, there are serious risks associated with this behavior.
Early initiation is associated with all of the same risks that adults face when using a substance, such as injury, violence and engaging in dangerous sexual behaviors, but they may be elevated among teens, who tend to be more likely to take risks than adults.
In addition, teens face an increased risk that they will become addicted to a substance by the time they reach adulthood. Individuals who begin using a substance in adulthood are not as likely to develop an addiction as those who began experimenting as a teen.
There is hope for teens who become addicted to drugs or alcohol. Substance abuse treatment is available, and many facilities offer programs specifically designed to meet the unique requirements that teens have for a successful recovery. For many teens, the struggle comes not when they are enrolled in the treatment program, but when they must return home and fight off cravings for the substance as they encounter cues that trigger them.
A paper by Shar Giridharadas published by the Office of National Drug Control Policy entitled “Adolescents and Relapse: A Guide to Overcoming Relapse Triggers” provides information about the types of obstacles teens face following treatment and how relapse can be avoided. The paper offers not only a description of various triggers but also includes a suggested plan for avoiding the pitfalls associated with each threat to a full recovery.
Peer Pressure: Peer influences are important factors in the lives of all teenagers, but for recovering addicts, the pressure from friends to go back to using the substance can be particularly overwhelming. Teens that return from a treatment program often want to return to their same group of friends, and those friends may still be using the substance.
The paper’s author suggests that teens create a plan with their therapists and parents to deal with peer pressure. Strategies could include a disclosure early on with peers that the teen has chosen to give up the substance, with a full awareness that some friends may respond with rejection. Teens may also need to choose events carefully and be prepared with an escape plan if substance use seems to be a part of the event.
Family: While family members are not necessarily a direct influence on a relapse, the most successful patients are often those who have active support from close family members. The paper includes the suggestion that parents and the recovering teen come up with a contract, with clear boundaries and consequences for substance use-related behaviors.
Life Changes: A major move, the transition to college or another event that similarly uproots a teen can be unsettling. However, for those attempting to avoid substance use following treatment, a big change may lead to relapse. One way to ease such a transition is to have ready a transition support team for the teen to avoid the pitfalls that can lead to a relapse.
Stress: Many teens use substances to self-medicate against the stressful demands in their lives. Teens may need focused practice on stress-relief techniques following treatment program completion in order to become more habitual about using them. It may feel natural for the teen to turn back to the substance when they face even everyday stress from school, relationships and other sources.
Boredom: Teens who are not engaged in an extracurricular activity or a sport may find that too much free time leads to cravings. Parents can help teens avoid this pitfall by helping them get involved in a club or other group that will encourage activities outside the home.
Illness or Injury: Recovering teens reentering life following treatment may be particularly vulnerable to relapse if they experience an illness or injury. Many of the painkillers prescribed for pain are addictive and teens may find that they are soon hooked on a new substance. Parents can help teens talk with doctors about the unique challenges they have in treating their illness or injury to avoid using addictive medications.
Parents can remain closely involved, providing support to teens as they navigate these potential triggers following substance abuse treatment. With a coordinated effort, teens can learn to live with triggers without falling prey to them.