7 Early Signs of Alcoholism Among Teens

Underage drinking is an ongoing problem in the United States, making it essential to recognize the early signs of alcoholism. Recent government data indicates that nearly a third of high school students have had alcohol in the past month, and up to 14 percent “binge drank,” meaning consumption of more than four alcoholic beverages in a single drinking session. Even more frighteningly, an estimated 5 percent of high school drivers drove drunk in the last 30 days. That’s one in twenty learner’s permit holders.

An admittedly important detail to note is that things used to be much worse. Fewer teens are drinking today than in decades past. However, that shouldn’t lessen the fervor with which this topic should be addressed.

Frequent teenage alcohol consumption can lead to life-long negative impacts on their physical and mental health, affecting memory and cognition, personality, rates of depression and anxiety, and a risk for both victimization and perpetration of physical and sexual violence.

But there’s still a considerable difference between dabbling with alcohol as a teen and becoming an alcoholic. Understanding when that gap is bridged, and the warning signs leading up to it is important.

What are the Early Signs of Alcoholism?

While it’s one thing to discipline a child about being reckless with an illegal taboo, a diagnosis of teen alcoholism is a condition that requires immediate professional attention. Teen alcohol use disorder is a mental health condition and one requiring a dedicated treatment plan. Let’s look at some of the more common early signs of teen alcoholism.

1. Frequent Mood Shifts and Irritability

Mood stability can be a helpful gauge of a teen’s mental health. It’s normal to be sad when bad things happen, happy when good things happen, and neutral on some days.

Teens may overreact or appear more or less emotional on some days than others, and the reasons for their reactions might be unknown to you. It could be that their favorite band is breaking up or that their friend has been stressing them out about something. It could be that they’re just upset about something not quite going their way.

But when a teen’s mood is wildly unstable and shifting heavily between deep sorrow and a manic level of energy, something may be wrong. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an addiction. A consistently low mood over several weeks can be a sign of depression, especially if there is no recognizable trigger event or known cause. An episode of depression followed by a manic episode several weeks or months later may be a sign of another mood disorder.

However, if these shifts in mood follow a recognizable pattern that might indicate that they have something to do with drinking or drug use – such as occurring every time a teen goes out with their friends, comes back from “studying,” or after coming home late from school – they may be a strong indicator of an ongoing drug problem, especially if they are frequent.

2. Lying About Their Drinking Habits

Lying is a powerful trick that teens get better and better at with every year of practice. They’re no longer children, and some teens hide the truth better than others.

But if you can catch them in a lie, then the willingness to lie about frequent drinking may hint at more than just a reluctance to tell you about their recent escapades – they may be specifically trying to hide just how much they’ve been drinking, out of fear, shame, or worry.

3. Frequently Coming Home Drunk

Teens are drinking less than they have in decades past – so chances are that you or your friends have had their fair share of high school drinking stories.

But there’s a difference between getting away with a few beers and coming home drunk multiple times a month or every week. Frequent drinking, while not a strict prerequisite for alcoholism, almost always leads to it.

4. Performance and Personality Changes

Anyone can get addicted to anything. One of the dangerous things about addiction is that we sometimes assume it only happens to “bad” people. In one way, that’s the fault of misrepresentation – many unsavory characters in films and books are described as drunks or addicts, and some of their worst traits come out when they’re using.

But the truth is that drugs like alcohol can have a significant impact on a person’s mind and personality. “Good” kids are still at risk for teenage drinking and addiction. A teenager may be overwhelmed by the responsibilities and expectations weighing on them and may feel they’ve earned the chance to relax for once. They might find themselves depending on alcohol to soothe their anxieties. Or maybe it’s their way of rewarding their hard work on social occasions, then with close friends, and lastly, at home, in private.

Anyone can get addicted and have their life severely changed by their addiction. There is no moral element to drug use. It is like any other disease: a destructive condition that can be identified and treated.

5. Hiding Alcohol at Home

In addition to lying about drinking, coming home frequently drunk, and behaving abnormally as of late, another common indication of teen alcoholism is private drinking.

Like adults, teens might hide drinks in their room, in their bag, or somewhere else where they can grab a drink to soothe themselves after a long day or to hide from everyone.

6. Showing Up Drunk

At a certain point, it becomes difficult to hide the drinking. Alcoholism is progressive with how much it makes you drink to the point where you may spend more waking hours drunk than sober.

That can mean showing up to school drunk, showing up at social gatherings already drunk, and even driving drunk on multiple occasions.

7. Multiple Occasions of Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol is not only addictive – it is poisonous. Too much alcohol in one drinking session can lead to vomiting, lapses in memory (blackouts), breathing difficulties, and loss of bowel control.

Teens are especially at risk of alcohol poisoning because they may have no gauge for how much is too much and because they are less physically capable of handling alcohol than a fully-grown adult. But multiple episodes of alcohol poisoning can be a definitive sign of a serious problem. Binge drinking and alcohol poisoning can lead to an early death. Each year, alcohol claims the lives of over 3,500 people under the age of 21.

The Difference Between Drinking and Addiction

The line between having experience with alcohol as a teen and being a teen alcoholic is a fine line. Only a professional can make a proper diagnosis of a teen’s symptoms and determine a substance use disorder.

But the general rule of thumb is that the difference between drug use and a drug use disorder is determined by whether a person’s usage is significantly and negatively affecting them – and whether those negative consequences have led them to stop.

A teen who continues to drink despite driving away their friends, struggling in school, and straining their relationships at home is more than likely suffering from a serious drinking problem.

If you believe you or a teen loved one is struggling with alcohol use, then convincing them to get immediate help is important. Alcohol is among the most dangerous and destructive drugs due to its ubiquity, availability, and impact on both the body and mind. Early alcohol addiction can ruin a life. But getting help as soon as possible can reverse some of the impacts that alcoholism has and bring a teen the chance at a long and fulfilling life without addiction.


Recognizing the Signs of Teenage Alcoholism

Many people enjoy getting drunk, but no one wants to be drunk. Excessive alcohol use can have a lasting effect on the brain, damage the liver and heart, and extensively impact a person’s social life and relationships. Sadly, some teens struggle with alcoholism – in fact, teenagers are more susceptible to it than adults, as research hints. Part of why teenage drinking is a health hazard is because of alcohol use on the developing body. As we reach physical maturity, certain habits become harder to imprint – teenage brains are still in development and more likely to be affected by the addictiveness of alcohol and other substances.

How Common Is Teen Alcohol Use?

While teenage drug use has been (mostly) in decline for years, many teens still find themselves using and struggling with the misuse of both legal and illegal addictive substances. Marijuana use and vaping have both been on the rise among school children throughout the US. High school to college teens continue to deal with high levels of binge drinking to the point that it continues to be identified as a public health problem. The CDC goes so far as the say that underage drinking is common, and alcohol remains the most used addictive substance among young people in the United States.

Why Do Teens Drink?

There are many reasons teenagers might want to try drinking, ranging from never having done it before to drinking as a learned coping mechanism from other adults, as well as peer pressure. Perhaps the most comprehensive answer is because of alcohol’s sheer ubiquity and because alcohol itself is addictive – more so for some than for others. Teens with a history of alcoholism in the family would be more likely to drink more often than their peers. They may have a harder time recognizing the deleterious nature of their drinking (and a harder time stopping once they do).

Banning alcohol outright obviously isn’t the answer. It’s been tried before, with mixed results, to say the least – and it isn’t as though underage drinking isn’t already illegal and regulated. In most cases, the problem can’t just be attributed to any single cause or factor. It’s almost always a series of conflating events and circumstances that lead to teenage drinking – some of which contribute to an alcohol use disorder over time. Just as teens drink, there are also so-called protective factors that reduce the likelihood of teenage drug use and addiction. These include:

  • Positive family bonds.
  • Parental involvement in a child’s life.
  • Strong bonds within the community.

Risk factors and protective factors help us identify pieces of the puzzle – but they’re not always squarely to blame. Emotional trauma can negate a happy childhood and lead a teen down a path towards substance use and other maladaptive coping mechanisms. Similarly, a child can have a neglected past and can still lead a life without addiction.

Recognizing Teenage Alcoholism

Most adults know how to recognize drunk behavior. Slurred speech, difficulty with coordination, slowed cognition, slow reflexes, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting. If matched with difficulty breathing and an increased heart rate, these symptoms can also be signs of alcohol poisoning. But how do you recognize a long-term teen addiction?

Even teens who try to hide their drinking from friends and family can and do slip up, showing up drunk to meets, or even drinking at school, having trouble with memory gaps, getting blackout drunk multiple times, hiding drinks, lying about drinking, or spending most of their time (and money) drinking or recovering from drinking. Drinking can also have an impact on a teen’s physical and mental health.

They might be gaining weight rapidly, struggling with their extracurriculars, may appear moody and irritable, are having trouble with their friends or partner, and maybe avoiding people around them. Some signs are undeniable, like empty bottles hidden away in their room. Others, like struggling at school, are less obvious and not always related to drinking.

What Are the Risks of Teenage Alcoholism?

Long-term drug use, especially alcohol, can have a serious impact on a teen’s overall health. The risks of teenage alcoholism include:

  • Long-term organ damage.
  • Heart disease.
  • Increased risk of stroke.
  • Decreased cognitive function.
  • Legal issues (DUIs, hit and run, property damage).
  • Unsafe sex.
  • Cancer of the mouth, throat, voice box, liver, colon, breast, or rectum.
  • Increased risk of firearm injuries, sexual assault, domestic violence, and drowning.
  • Mental comorbidities (anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder).

How Is Teenage Alcoholism Treated?

Treatments for alcoholism center around a long-term plan that incorporates sobriety habits, healthier coping mechanisms, and therapy. Most teens are treated either through outpatient or inpatient programs in specialized clinics and residential treatment centers designed to help parents pick a program that best suits their teen’s needs and circumstances.

Alcoholism and Comorbid Conditions

Treatment for teenage alcoholism always requires a holistic approach. Many teens who struggle with addiction have mental comorbidity and often have physical healthcare considerations that need to be attended to throughout treatment. Mental comorbidities, or a dual diagnosis, require addiction treatment that also attends to the symptoms present in a teen due to or exacerbated by their drinking behavior.

These can range from irritability and aggressive mood changes to episodes of self-harm, suicidal ideation, and thoughts of worthlessness. For many teens, the road to recovery requires long-term mental support from both medical professionals and loved ones, in the form of talk therapy and psychiatric pharmacology, and a strong support network. Comorbidities commonly diagnosed alongside alcohol use disorder include:

Residential and Outpatient Treatments

Inpatient (residential) and outpatient treatment programs are the two most common ways to address substance use disorder and dual diagnoses. An inpatient treatment program involves having a teen live alongside other teens in a residential treatment setting, surrounded by professional medical staff, and guided through the first few weeks of treatment, from initial detox to the transition into extended care, outpatient care, or regular living.

Teen residential treatment plans often include a personalized curriculum to ensure that teen tenants keep up with their peers academically and group and individual treatment sessions, daily activities, and more. Meanwhile, outpatient treatment programs allow teens to continue living at home and going to school while making recurring visits to a treatment clinic. Teens who have a structured environment to live in can benefit from the professional help of an outpatient clinic without signing into a residential program.


Teen Alcoholism Risk Factors, Treatment and Coping

American teens drink – and many of them drink quite a lot. Data from 2019 shows that about 29 percent of high school students drank alcohol in the past 30 days, while about 14 percent engaged in binge drinking, and at least 5 percent drove drunk. While these numbers are down significantly from past decades, they are not insignificant either.

Alcohol has a very long history in most human societies and is anthropologically one of the oldest psychoactive substances we have actively produced and consumed. Drinking is ingrained in many cultures as a social ritual, especially in the West. Our children grow up exposed to alcohol and drinking as an accepted and important part of adulthood and growing up.

It’s no wonder that they want to experiment with the drug as soon as possible, and it’s known that children tend to mirror their parents, even when it comes to drinking frequency. But exposure to alcohol at a young age can greatly increase the risk of teen alcoholism. The teenage brain is more prone to the addictiveness of any drug, and alcohol is no exception.

Early-onset of frequent drinking is a significant risk factor for drinking problems and a long-term alcohol use disorder. The data shows that the younger someone starts drinking, the faster they get addicted, and the more likely they are to continue to struggle with alcohol later in adulthood. However, other important risk factors can predict and contribute to teen alcoholism.

What Are the Risk Factors for Teen Alcoholism?

The risk factors for teen alcoholism and early teen alcohol use vary, but parental and peer influences are the most powerful. Parenting choices especially, particularly rules surrounding alcohol, were useful predictors for early-onset drinking in a study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics based on Australian data. But aside from parenting and environment, genetics also play a role. Teens and adults with a history of alcohol use disorder were also likely to have other family members with alcoholism.

Even when environmental factors are accounted for (i.e., growing up in another home), genetics still played a role in predisposition. This often means that someone with several cases of alcoholism in the family might develop an addiction to alcohol more quickly than their peers. This risk can potentially be measured through brain activity and even early childhood temperament. Associated and co-occurring mental health issues are another predictor for alcohol use disorder risk, as one can influence the other both behaviorally and neurologically.

For example, teens with diagnosed mood disorders and/or anxiety disorders were more likely to binge drink than their peers. Early-onset alcohol use was also linked to the likelihood of a conduct disorder. Other psychosocial risk factors also play a role. Early childhood experiences, trauma, abuse, and socioeconomic status are also linked to early-onset drinking and teen alcoholism.

Teen-Specific Treatment Options

Teen alcoholism treatment is typically centered around inpatient rehabilitation or outpatient support, often in the form of one-on-one and group therapy. Inpatient programs involve living in a specialized residence and receiving treatment, often alongside a group of other teens, with around-the-clock supervision and daily therapy. These programs are usually tailored towards teens with a severe alcohol program, who need to be reintroduced to sober life one step at a time.

Outpatient programs have teens visit an outpatient facility regularly for treatment and therapy while leading an everyday life at home. These programs are usually targeted towards teens who have a less severe alcohol addiction and can guide a structured life of their own through school and other obligations. PHP and IOP are in-between options that help teens whose circumstances prevent a complete inpatient or residential treatment program but need more supervision and guidance than a typical outpatient program might provide.

Separate yet from these programs are support groups, which come in all shapes and sizes. Support groups may or may not be part of the treatment process and are usually left to the patient’s discretion. Some specialists recommend certain support groups, while others suggest that recoverees seek safe spaces in general, ones that guarantee a drug-free, alcohol-free, and prejudice-free environment. Supplemental treatments include (but is not limited to):

    • Individual and family therapy.
    • Long-term support through friends, family, and the community.
    • Treatment for co-occurring mental health conditions (also known as a dual diagnosis).

Addiction treatment is always individualized. Every teen requires a unique approach tailored to their circumstances. For teens with a history of long-term alcohol use and addiction, any treatment program’s goal – whether inpatient or outpatient – is to treat the dependence and associated withdrawal symptoms and arm each teen with their own tailored toolkit to combat and prevent relapses.

However, treating addiction is about more than just one person. Teen alcoholism affects the entire family, the entire friend group, and sometimes, the entire community. There is a crucial social element to treating a person’s addiction that requires helping them integrate into everyday life, avoid relapses and triggers, and find their way back towards recovery in the case of deterioration.

Long-Term Support and Coping With Teen Alcoholism

The long-term healing process for teen alcoholism can be complex and may require patience on the family and friends’ recoveree. Addiction is a condition that changes the way behavior is rewarded and emphasized in the brain, to the point where old hobbies and healthier coping mechanisms pale in comparison to the urge to grab a drink.

Inpatient programs rely on a highly structured and regimented lifestyle to help teens break the behavioral grasp of addiction and introduce new and different activities and coping mechanisms. But it is friends and family that must continue to encourage those activities and coping mechanisms and help a teen get back onto their regimented schedule when things start to get tricky. No matter how a teen’s recovery is tackled, consistency, schedules, and a plan centered around long-term sobriety are important.


Teen Drinking Risk Factors and Consequences

The shift towards a new generation has greatly decreased underage drinking, not only in the United States but across the developed world, especially in Europe where per capita alcohol consumption for teens and adults typically goes above and beyond US levels.

Experts cite changes in technology rather than policy, particularly the accountability and unintentional social oversight fostered by social media, as being key in the development of completely different attitudes towards alcohol and drunkenness. Kids are much more aware of the consequences of losing control and doing something reckless on the Internet.

Furthermore, today’s teens are much more likely to stay in and drink at home (even before the pandemic), in a safer environment. This doesn’t mean teen drinking has been eliminated. Despite a reduction in binge drinking and associated deaths, underage drinking remains an issue all around the developed world, and over 4,300 teens still die in the US every year as a direct result of excessive underage drinking.

How Many Teens Drink?

Teenage drinking is measured not by lifetime drinks, but by drinking habits within the last thirty days. As such, an underage “non-drinker” is someone who has not imbibed in the last month. An estimated 30 percent of teens have consumed some level of alcohol in the last month, with 14 percent having binged at least once.

Binge drinking is defined as consuming more than a set amount of alcohol in a single drinking session. This is defined as having a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 grams of alcohol per deciliter of blood (100ml), or about 5 drinks for males and 4 drinks for females in two hours. A “drink” is equivalent to about one beer, a glass of wine, or a single shot of liquor (roughly 14 grams of alcohol).

Binge drinking is considered a youth risk behavior, and although it is not indicative of alcohol use disorder (alcohol addiction or alcohol dependence), teens who binge more often are at greater risk of developing alcoholism and associated physical and mental health issues. It’s worth noting binge drinking is certainly not unique to underage populations and is significantly more common in ages 18-34. However, teens may be disproportionately affected by the risks associated with excessive drinking.

Family Influences on Teen Drinking Risk Factors

The risk factors playing into teen drinking are complex and numerous. Some are external factors, and some are internal factors. Internal factors typically refer to genetics and the effects of alcohol on the brain, which differ from person to person. Some people are more naturally resistant to alcohol’s effects than others, and some people are genetically more likely to become physically dependent on alcohol or develop a substance use problem.

If alcoholism “runs in the family”, so to speak, a teen is at greater risk of developing similar issues if they begin to drink frequently versus peers who don’t have a family history of alcohol use issues. Home environment also plays a role as an external factor in a teen’s drinking behavior. A healthy home environment, especially one where child and parent are close, and the parent monitors their child’s substance use and talks them earnestly about drug use, can be greatly protective.

On the other hand, when a parent-child relationship is heavily strained, teens are more likely to engage in risk behavior including drug use, including drinking. Early childhood trauma, particularly in the form of abuse, also correlates with a higher rate of alcohol use disorder in adult women, but not necessarily in men. This link is still being researched.

How Important Is Peer Pressure?

Many parents cite they feel they may have less of an impact on their children’s behavior than their peers as they enter middle and late adolescence. While the impact of peer pressure is important, it is equally important not to overstate the impact or focus entirely on reducing its effects without taking note of how other factors influence a teen’s likelihood to use alcohol early or excessively.

Parents do remain a child’s strongest influence on attitudes towards drinking, an influence that persists all the way into emerging adulthood. Feeling comfortable and relaxed around alcohol or seeing many of their peers drink can increase their likelihood of imbibing. This is called social modeling.

Furthermore, peer selection is also an important factor. Teens with a laxer attitude towards drinking and alcohol are more likely to choose friends who are similarly lax towards drinking, and are thus more likely to drink. The classic model of a teen feeling pressured to drink at a party is still an existing issue.

But the factors going into influencing a teen’s decision to start drinking early are far more complex than just the attitude of their friends, and their friends’ likelihood to compel them to drink. Previous attitudes towards alcohol, home environment, parental influence, and even genetic factors remain important factors as well.

Teen Drinking and Mental Health

Teens with a history of mental health problems are more likely to try, and even regularly use, alcohol and other substances, such as (but not limited to):

    • Anxiety disorders
    • Forms of depression
    • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
    • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
    • And other conditions

Research has also established there is a significant unmet need for treatment that addresses both mental health and substance use disorder among teens. Thus, existing numbers may be hiding an even greater co-occurring rate between mental health issues and drug use among teens, as researchers have generally only been able to test for both among the treatment-seeking population. Current estimates note anywhere from 11 to 40 percent of teens who need mental health treatment services are currently receiving them.

Alcohol Availability and Advertising

The role of alcohol advertising and media in developing attitudes towards alcohol cannot be understated. While parents and peers likely play a majority role in developing a teen’s attitude towards alcohol use, television programs, movies, and both video and print ads all heavily contribute as well.

Many advertising companies and marketing departments know this, and target youth and teens via advertising appealing to adults and adolescents alike, utilizing humor, animal characters, and depictions of immediate gratification or higher social status in association with the product and/or brand.

Delay Teen Drinking

The consequences of underage drinking are numerous, ranging from long-term memory issues and brain damage to increased risk of stroke, heart disease, and various forms of cancer, as well as a greater risk of alcohol-related injuries and death from car crashes, burns, falls, drowning, and poisoning. Teens who drink regularly are more likely to engage in risky sexual intercourse, experience unwanted or unplanned sex, and struggle more at school.

Research also shows prolonging a teen’s introduction to alcohol is their best bet of reducing harm in the long-term. It’s unlikely to completely prevent alcohol use, due to alcohol’s ubiquitous nature and the current drinking rate among adults in the US. However, delaying a teen’s first drink can reduce alcohol’s deleterious effects on a teen’s mental and emotional development, as well as reduce the risk of alcohol use disorder and associated consequences.

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Alcohol Abuse and Sexual Assault: Is There a Link?

Alcohol abuse is a common problem on many college campuses today, but even more frightening is the realization of just how much heavy drinking is tied to the incidence of sexual assault. A new poll from the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation showed new evidence of that link, finding that heavy drinking is a significant factor in predicting sexual assault during the college years.

Women More Likely to be Victims

Women that drink more than they should are twice as likely to be the victims of sexual assault as women who never or rarely drink, the poll found. Alcohol was also a factor for the men that were responsible for the assaults. The poll included 1,053 current and recent college students that were living on or near their college campus.

According to this survey, one in five women reported being sexually assaulted during college. More than half of those women – 14 percent – said they were assaulted while incapacitated. Most students that experienced unwanted sexual contact during this time admitted to drinking alcohol shortly before the incident, according to interviews conducted with many of the students that had responded to the poll.

Other Dangers of Alcohol Abuse

Despite the association between alcohol consumption and sexual assault, college students in the poll saw drinking alcohol as the bigger problem of the two. Nearly 40 percent of the students surveyed said that when they drink alcohol in social situations, they sometimes or often drink more than they should. Only three in 10 said that happens rarely, while another three in 10 said it never happens or they don’t drink at all.

Sexual assault is not the only danger associated with excessive drinking during the college years. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), other consequences of college drinking include:

  • Unintentional injury (affects nearly 600,000 students annually)
  • Other types of assault (occurs in around 696,000 students annually)
  • Academic problems (affects around one-fourth of all students annually)
  • Unsafe sex (occurs with approximately 400,000 students each year)
  • Drunk driving (more than 4.8 million students drive under the influence annually)
  • Death (affects around 1,825 students annually)

The College Drinking Problem

College students that drink abusively are also more likely to develop a substance abuse disorder. According to a survey by the NIAAA, 19 percent of college students met the criteria for an alcohol abuse disorder. However, only five percent of those students had sought help for their substance abused within the past year.

Drinking alcohol is not a normal rite of passage during the college years. It is a dangerous practice that can turn into a dependency within a relatively short period of time. If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, help is available. Contact Visions Adolescent Treatment Centers today at 866-889-3665 to learn more about your treatment options.

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Risk Factors for Substance Abuse for Teens

While there is no way to definitively predict which teens might develop a substance abuse disorder, there are a number of risk factors that considerably increase the likelihood an abuse problem will occur. By understanding these risk factors, parents and others involved in a child’s life can employ effective protective actions to minimize the risk. Below are a few of the common factors that raise the chances substance abuse could become a problem by the time a child becomes a teenager.

Family history of substance abuse is one of the biggest risk factors for children develop a substance abuse disorder by the time they hit the teen years. Prenatal exposure to alcohol may also make a person more vulnerable to substance abuse later in life.

Children that are around substance use, either by parents, friends or members of their community, may regard drugs and alcohol as a normal part of life. They may not recognize the dangers of using these substances, which puts them at increased risk of addiction.

Children who are impulsive or aggressive in the early years of life may also be more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. Aggressive behavior could lead to anti-social tendencies, while impulsivity is an individual risk factor that involves the inability to set limits on one’s behavior.

Mental Health
The connection between a substance abuse disorder and a mental illness is very high. In some cases, the person may use substances to cope with the painful symptoms of the mental illness. Other times, regular substance use may trigger the symptoms of a mental disorder.

Family Life
Children with parents that abuse drugs or alcohol are more likely to use the substances themselves. In addition, a home life that is stressful due to conflict or other difficult situations can also make a teen more likely to use substances as a way of dealing with the stress.

Social Life
Children that do not socialize well with their peers are more likely to turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with their loneliness. By the same token, teens who choose friends that use are more likely to use themselves as well.

Struggles in school, whether academically or socially, can also lead to substance abuse. The earlier the school problems begin, the more likely it is that substance abuse will become an obstacle over time.

At Visions Adolescent Treatment Centers, we have seen teens turn to drugs and alcohol for a wide range of reasons. While prevention should always be the primary focus in keeping this age group safe and healthy, sometimes prevention efforts are simply not enough to keep a potential addiction at bay. The good news is there are also effective methods of treating substance abuse that help teens move away from their abusive behaviors and into a healthier, sober way of life. To learn more about our treatment programs, contact Visions Adolescent Treatment Centers at 866-889-3665.

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What is Refuge Recovery?

Noah Levine’s Refuge Recovery provides another approach to recovery–one seeped in Buddhist practice. We were inspired by his talk at this year’s Innovations in Recovery conference. Since 1935, Alcoholics Anonymous has been a foundational component of recovery for millions of alcoholics and addicts. It is free, it is available for all ages, it is simple in the way it’s shared and processed, and it also hasn’t really changed. When I take sponsees through the steps, they often comment on my old, tattered copies of the Twelve and Twelve and Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.  Over the years, however, my perception and process around the steps has shifted. It has evolved, if you will, to include another path, one that I share with those willing to begin the process of uncovering, discovering, and discarding old behaviors in a new, approachable way.


Several years ago, Noah Levine, author of Dharma Punx, Against the Stream, Heart of the Revolution and founder of Against the Stream Meditation Society, started formulating the ideas behind his program called Refuge Recovery – a way of approaching recovery from addiction via the Buddhist path. This is a path fraught with self-inquiry, curiosity, dedication, and a call to put these actions into practice. Refuge Recovery views recovery as a process that heals the underlying causal factors that led to addiction in the first place.  His latest book, Refuge Recovery: A Buddhist Path to Recovering from Addiction, outlines his adaptation of the Buddhist 4 Noble Truths and Eightfold Path to use as an approach to recovery.


Refuge Recovery requires that practitioners practice renunciation: a formal rejection and abstinence from harmful behavior, including using drugs and alcohol. One is required to start with an in-depth personal inventory: a thorough, inquisitive investigation of one’s behavior, traumas, and resulting consequences and how they have manifested in one’s life. One is asked to take refuge in their community, and in the practices of meditation and renunciation. Here, taking refuge means we are taking shelter or finding safety and protection in recovery and community. In many ways, addicts and alcoholics have been attempting to take refuge via substances for years, only to find there is no real sanctuary there.


Refuge Recovery is based on Buddhist principles, which integrate scientific, non-theistic, and psychological insight.  Addictions are viewed as cravings in the body and mind; using meditation to create awareness can alleviate those cravings and ease one’s suffering.  It is done through this adaptation of the 4 Noble Truths:


1. Take inventory of our suffering: that which we have experienced and that which we have caused. (Uncover)

2. Investigate the cause and conditions of our suffering. (Discover) Begin the process of letting go. (Discard)

3.  Come to understand that recovery is possible, taking refuge in the path that leads to the end of addiction and suffering.

4. Engage in the Buddhist Eightfold Path that leads to recovery.


What follows is the Buddhist Eightfold Path.


The first two address the development of Wisdom.

 1. Wise understanding

2. Wise intentions

These three address Moral Conduct:

 3. Wise speech/community

 4. Wise actions

 5. Wise livelihood/service

These three address Mental Discipline

6. Wise effort

7. Mindfulness

8. Concentration


Another difference between Refuge Recovery and the 12 Steps is there is not a specific order: this is not a linear path. Through this process, one develops compassion and wisdom: two sides of the same coin, if you will. Compassion is equated with love, charity, kindness, and tolerance—qualities of the heart; Wisdom represents the quality of the mind: our ability to concentrate, make wise choices, and to critically think. However, compassion without wisdom, leads to foolishness, and wisdom without compassion leads to stoicism. The two must interweave.


I share this with you not to berate AA, but to provide a view outside of what we are familiar with and to open the doors of the mind and heart to see a way of broadening one’s path.  Bill W encouraged a broadening of the spiritual path: Refuge Recovery is that broadening. This is an opportunity to really look deeply into ingrained habits and patterns that prevent us from being truly free from our suffering. Visions began taking our teens that are on our mental health track to Refuge Recovery meetings with much success. Of late, our teens that usually go to AA meetings are also enjoying Refuge Recovery meetings.  It’s important to note that one is not better than the other: AA and Refuge Recovery can complement each other, leaving space for curiosity and introspection from a theistic or non-theistic path.

We leave no stone unturned in treatment: we provide what is necessary to recovery and we are grateful that the options for support are expanding.

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Alumni Voices: Alcoholics Anonymous Through the Lens of Adolescence

We are really honored to be able to share another alumni post, this one talking about Alcoholics Anonymous through the lens of a young person.  Having come to recovery as a young adult myself, her words resonate with me. It’s not easy walking in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous as a young person, but the beauty of young peoples’ meetings is the camaraderie and unspoken understanding amidst the community.  No one wants to hang out in a smokey room, drinking bad coffee on a Saturday night…unless you have to be there. And these young people get that. They get that they have to be there and they show up, week after week, day after day, learning ways in which to show up for themselves and their recovery:


Walking into a room of Alcoholics Anonymous may be the most defining moment in an alcoholic’s life. I know it was pretty life changing for me. Not necessarily in the sense that my life was being threatened by my drug use (although my behavior was), but in the sense that if I hadn’t made it to rehab and to these rooms, I would not be where I am or who I am today.

I sat in the pre-meeting the other night, waiting for it to begin, when it struck me. “Where would I be if I hadn’t gone to rehab and been introduced to these rooms? What would my life look like?” Many people in the Young People’s rooms go through Treatment, many don’t. What matters is that whoever they are, if they are alcoholic, they make it to the rooms of AA.

My beliefs vary when it comes down to an alcoholic’s diagnosis. Sometimes I believe that an alcoholic is born an alcoholic, sometimes I believe they become one. When it comes to myself, I don’t exactly know. I still struggle with identifying, even at meetings, and especially when a speaker has a gnarly story.

I believe this is a common thread in the rooms of AA. Comparing ourselves to others is pretty standard among alcoholics, particularly in the rooms with young people. I used to think that the young people’s meetings were fake and ridiculous. I thought it was like a talent show. Everyone gets all dressed up just to call attention to themselves. That’s not what the principles state and its not what the program is about.

I know now that I was just uncomfortable and insecure, and I was projecting my feelings of dislike for myself into the room. One of my favorite counselors in rehab, who was a young person in the program and who I was very close to and respected very much, challenged my dislike and asked “Where else are we going to get all dressed up to go on a Saturday night?”

When you walk into the rooms of a young peoples’ meeting, a thick smog of E-cig vapor coats the room. It’s so clouded that if the lighting is right and you are sitting far back enough, sometimes you can’t even see the speaker clearly. Everyone is uncomfortable and many people are new to the program. There are a handful of people that are “chronic relapsers,” but they keep coming back. That’s what’s so special about this program.

Altogether, there are many years of sobriety in the room. These meetings are popular; even a few from the older crowd shuffle in. We are all for having a good time, yet most people take the meeting very seriously; it’s life and death for many people. That’s what’s so special about these meetings.

Some of us are very judgmental, its honestly because we are insecure about ourselves. Many of us have been through the wringer, and we are sick and tired of being sick and tired. We are the only people who truly get one another. That’s what’s so special about people in recovery.



Addiction Adolescence Alcoholism Mental Health Parenting Prevention

Affluenza: A Disguise for Alcoholism and Substance Abuse

The news is rife with the term “Affluenza,” which was recently used as a defense for a 16-year-old Texas teen* accused of killing 4 people in a drunk driving case. Instead of jail time, he was sentenced to 10 years of probation, presenting an interesting perspective on what can happen when parents don’t set boundaries, create limits, or teach accountability. For those who don’t know, the term “Affluenza” is a term coined by John de Graaf, environmental scientist David Wann and economist Thomas H. Naylor, authors of the book Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic.


When speaking to John Lieberman, Director of Operations about this case, he said:

“This is a sad and horrible situation. No amount of jail time or punishment will heal the wounds or bring back the dead. The simple fact here is this: Every parent can learn from this situation. This young man was showing signs and symptoms of drug and alcohol abuse prior to the accident. Early intervention is the most important and effective way to deal with addiction, drug abuse and “affluenza.” Parents, please take actions to stand between your children and the actions that may destroy their lives and the lives of others.

One of the most important standards of responsible treatment is accountability. Adolescents who act out may have been abused, neglected or spoiled. The issue at hand is not weather this young man should get treatment. The issue is if this recent light sentence fits the crime. I believe it is a mistake for any licensed mental health professional to make up a diagnosis; Affluenza is not a recognized diagnosis. The sad thing is that the symptoms this teen was exhibiting do relate to a defined diagnosis.”


The 16-year-old’s blood alcohol levels were three times the legal adult limit and the alcohol he’d consumed that fateful day had been purloined illegally. The public outrage stems from his lack of accountability and lack of his family’s accountability. According to Mary Greshem, an Atlanta psychologist, “The diagnosis for youths in such situations would be impulse control problems, and impulse control problems are seen across all socioeconomic levels in families where limits aren’t set.”


Soniya Luther, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University says, “There are ways in a society that we collectively shape the behavior of our kids.” For example, if parents aren’t setting boundaries for themselves and regulating their own behavior, their kids won’t either. If a parent persistently fights consequences of their negative actions, they are sending negative messages to their children about taking responsibility. The reality is, a child who never faces consequences for their actions will have increasingly larger and larger problems to deal with. A therapist once said to me, “Little people, little problems; big people, big problems,” an apropos sentiment for this situation. Ignoring negative early childhood behaviors frames the perception of a consequence-free future, where the issues will be far greater than, “No, you can’t have an extra cookie.”  Soniya Luther says, “It really speaks to the importance of attending to our children’s behavior early on. In all cases, it is our duty (sic) to step in and do the right thing. It’s not just loving our kids but putting the appropriate limits on their behavior.”


*We’ve chosen to eliminate the teen’s proper name due to his age, despite its release in the media.


Addiction Alcoholism Recovery

Sponsorship or Mentorship: We Can’t Recover Alone

via @saritphoto

We recently talked about sponsorship within the confines of the 12 steps: particularly what a sponsor is and what a sponsor is not and the necessity of having that position filled in your life. This is particularly true in the beginning years of your recovery, where everything seems so muddy and untenable. Having someone in your corner  (a guide, if you will) who has their “ducks in a row” is a necessity. This imperative is part of what informs our recovery path: it’s spoken about at every meeting, in treatment, and often times in therapy. The relationship of sponsor/sponsee is one that will follow you through your sobriety and recovery.


What happens to someone who needs a program, is in recovery, but sincerely struggles to relate to the theistic practices of the 12 steps? Can the 12 steps work if the theism is removed?  Yes, but with some modification. I’ve had the honor of working with a couple of women who required the use of alternative language. The steps are still applied and used to create a foundation of recovery, but the use of intentions and meditation, breath and body awareness is also used to enhance recovery support. Over the last several years, there has been a groundswell of people in recovery seeking non-theistic and/or alternative recovery tools. Against the Stream responded to this with Refuge Recovery meetings and yearly inventory workshops. Their model “is a community of people who are using the practices of mindfulness, compassion, forgiveness and generosity to heal the pain and suffering that addiction has caused in our lives and the lives of their loved ones.” Individuals who have and are continuing to work the steps of that process are referred to as “mentors” and are asked to help others new to recovery begin their own process.


The act of looking at ourselves honestly and learning to sit in the discomfort of our feelings and emotions is powerful.  We can learn to have faith in the energy of our fellowship communities and begin to look at faith as an act of letting go: letting go of our need to control anything and everything around us, letting go of our fears, letting go of our egos. The movement toward a spiritual foundation of recovery and learning to embrace our somatic responses to our addiction and trauma is spreading like wildfire. We need the help and direction of others who have gone before us. We need sponsors or mentors to guide us on this path. We cannot do this alone.


“An alcoholic without a sponsor is like leaving Dracula in charge of the blood bank.”




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