While experimentation with substances is a common feature of identity exploration, it can become problematic when it interferes with daily functioning and relationships and can lead to later negative consequences and substance dependence. Teenagers who use drugs are more likely to get high out of curiosity or due to peer pressure and sensation seeking, but they also use drugs to numb emotional issues when they haven’t developed communication or self-regulation skills. Adolescent substance use treatment programs realize that there is a difference between frequent use and physical dependence and try to focus on the underlying emotional issues that contribute to substance use, which involves intensive family therapy and confidence building.
Is Your Teenager Hiding Their Substance Use?
Alcohol and marijuana are the most commonly abused substances among teenagers, although prescription pills, especially benzodiazepines and stimulants, are often accessible from family medicine cabinets or their own supply, as psychiatrists often assume teenagers have not realized their possible recreational value. Among adolescents, 40% admit to having tried marijuana and 35% report drinking alcohol frequently. Close to 20% of adolescents are prescribed medication for mental health issues and 7% have taken prescription pills that are not own. Despite these high numbers, teenagers may overestimate their substance use around peers but are less likely to admit their substance use to their parents or teachers due to fear of judgment or consequences.
When Does Substance Use Stop Being Experimental?
While occasional substance use is common among teenagers, less than 5% of teenagers report either having entered a substance use treatment program or needing access to resources for substance abuse. Physical signs of drug abuse vary depending on the substance.
Common themes include academic decline, loss of interest, secretive behavior, unusual tiredness, missing curfew, neglecting responsibility, legal problems, relationship problems, withdrawing from family, and high-risk behaviors, including speeding, unprotected sex, and petty theft.
Encouraging Your Teenager to Reach Out for Help
Early intervention can prevent negative consequences and long-term substance dependence. While your teenager may be resistant to realizing or admitting that they have a problem with substances, you can help them reduce or stop their substance use without turning your house into a police state.
Be Direct. Ignoring the elephant in the room enables them to continue using. Let them know that you know and that you are there to help, if they want you to.
Learn about the problem. Research side effects of their drug of choice and possible withdrawal symptoms. Ask about their experience and their attachment to substance use. Ask how they would best feel supported.
Minimize Judgment. If you want them to trust you to talk about their substance use, do not criticize their decisions. Instead of labeling their actions as right or wrong, express concern and a desire to help or listen.
Limit Access to substances and toxic relationships. While grounding them can be isolating, encourage structured socializing. Monitor technology use and spending without restricting it.
Encourage them to take responsibility for their actions and how substance use has affected their relationships and goals.
Address Underlying Emotional Issues. Substance use is often a way of self-medicating depression, anxiety, trauma, identity issues, and self-esteem. Consult professionals who understand the interaction between mental health and substance abuse.
Remember you are not alone.
Trails Carolina can help.
If your teenager’s substance use is ongoing or escalating, Trails Carolina is a wilderness therapy program that specializes in adolescent substance use treatment for teenagers ages 14-17. Trails uses survival skills, self-care practices, and adventure therapy to help teenagers heal from substance use and learn how to meet their needs in more effective ways. We acknowledge how substance abuse affects the whole family and emphasize family involvement through family therapy, support groups, and workshops.
A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Graham Shannonhouse has been actively involved in the wilderness therapy field for nearly three decades. After receiving her degree in 1991, Shannonhouse spent 10 years working with a premiere wilderness-based therapeutic program in south-central Idaho. During her tenure, she served three years as a hands-on Field Instructor, three years as Field Supervisor, and the remaining time as Wilderness Program Director. During this period she developed, managed, and served as counselor for the country’s first wilderness program specifically focused on pre- teens ages 10 to 13
Graham returned to the east in 2002 to serve as Executive Director for a therapeutic wilderness program based in North Carolina, successfully growing it to one of the most respected companies in the industry. In 2008, she resigned her position to open Trails Carolina. Having an intimate working knowledge of the roots of wilderness therapy, Graham has brought her experience and wisdom to her position as Partner and Executive Director with the goal of integrating the true family work that must be done to insure lasting success.