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Addiction treatment usually involves several different therapies and modalities, but the vast majority of facilities have moved away from the traditional “one-size-fits-all” model and towards an individualized approach. Teen addiction treatment programs tend to place great importance on understanding the circumstances surrounding a teen’s addiction. Because most teens are not long-term users, and because adolescents differ from adults in behavior, thorough assessment and careful consideration of teen-specific treatment options is important.

The physical effects of drug use manifest differently in teens who have only been using drugs for a few months or years versus adults who have been struggling with addiction for decades. Teens who use drugs also tend to be struggling with a co-occurring mental health condition that may have tied into their addiction, further complicating treatment. However, while every teen’s treatment is unique, there are several elements that remain common between cases.

Understanding Addiction

Treating an addiction requires a holistic approach that determines how a person’s biopsychosocial profile feeds into their drug use, and how both short-term and long-term support will be necessary to help a teen remain drug free. This means:

    • Looking at a teen’s family history.
    • Taking into context previous instances of drug use and/or addiction.
    • Taking into account potential risk factors at home and/or at school.
    • Working with parents and educators to better understand how the addiction began, and how to treat it.

Substance-use disorders are distinct from behavioral addictions and refer specifically to disorders caused by and characterized by the repeated and compulsive use of addictive substances despite clear and recurring negative consequences, as defined by both the APA and the DSM-5. Addiction begins in the brain, and in the context of substance use, it is at least partially tied to a drug’s “addictiveness”.

Some drugs are addictive, and some aren’t, which is understood to be tied to how certain substances interact with pathways in the brain related to pleasure, motivation, and decision-making. Different drugs affect the brain via different drug mechanisms, many of which rely on the release or amplification of dopamine, one of many neurotransmitters responsible for reinforcing behavior.

What Does Teen Addiction Treatment Entail?

Treating an addiction often begins with abstinence, cutting into how recurring use reinforces a drug’s effects on the brain. Treatment providers work with teens and their parents to identify contributing factors, such as triggering events, recurring stressors or diagnosed mental health conditions.

From there, they work on providing patient-specific therapy (and medication, if needed) to combat these issues and provide teens with more constructive coping mechanisms. In cases where repeated relapses or a history of issues may make outpatient treatment difficult, teens and their parents can opt to seek more intensive care.

At this next level of care in residential or inpatient treatment, teens learn how to:

    • Better cope with elements in their life that might drive them to use again.
    • Seek support from peers and adults.
    • Foster behavior that can help them avoid relapsing while continuing their treatment outside of the program in the long-term.

Some teens do well with individual therapy, while others might respond better in a group. Experiential therapy techniques, and therapy aimed at helping teens hone interpersonal skills to combat feelings of isolation, can also have a positive effect on their overall mental state and likelihood of relapse.

Other important elements that are taken into consideration include helping a teen get through their schoolwork, promoting physical wellness via healthier habits (from better sleep and more exercise to a better understanding of diet), and more.

Some research also indicates that teens are less sensitive to withdrawal symptoms, and less likely to relapse because of drug-induced withdrawal problems. If they do relapse, many treatment programs work to help teens preempt and understand that relapsing can be part of treating addiction, as it helps identify a trigger point or stressor that should be avoided or further addressed in therapy.

Differences Between Adult and Teen Addiction Treatment

Teen addiction treatment differs insofar that addiction may present itself differently in teens than it does in adults. In many cases, treating adolescent cases of substance abuse requires not only an approach that focuses on reducing harmful compulsive use, but also identifies the factors contributing to the behavior such as high risk mental health issues, childhood trauma, and victimization.

Diagnostic criteria may differ for teens as well, as research points out teens may require a different or developmentally bound definition of hazardous use and have very individualized and non-standardized definitions of cravings. An individualized assessment is necessary in every case to differentiate between mild use and a substance abuse disorder and determine whether treatment required would entail an outpatient program or something more intensive.

Types of Teen Addiction Treatment Programs

Addiction treatment is generally split between inpatient and outpatient treatment. More distinctions are applied based on factors such as the focus of the treatment, length of the program, and more. A few examples of different types of treatment programs include:

Co-Ed and Gender-Specific Programs

Some teen addiction treatment programs allow teens of all genders to enroll, while gender-specific programs are tailored to each gender.

LGBTQ+ Programs

Non-conforming gender identities and sexual minorities experience a host of unique issues which can exacerbate or affect their substance use disorder. Treatment programs that cater to LGBTQ+ teens specifically may be more effective for them.

Residential/Inpatient, Intensive Outpatient or Outpatient Programs

Residential (inpatient) and outpatient programs utilize different levels of care to cater to teens requiring different kinds of treatment. Outpatient treatment will involve less contact with treatment providers but allows teens stay with their family and continue to go to school, while residential treatment offers a more intensive experience, particularly if teens are a danger to themselves or those around them.

Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHP)

Partial hospitalization is a treatment type that is a step down from inpatient care but provides a more intensive care than most other outpatient programs. Teens are instructed to visit the outpatient facility on a more regular basis and follow a strict schedule.

Extended Care Programs

An extended care program serves an alternative for when teens require inpatient treatment for longer than the standard duration of roughly 30-60 days. Extended care programs are usually a minimum of three months.

Addiction vs. Dual Diagnosis Treatment Programs

Addiction treatment and dual diagnosis treatment (a diagnosis of both substance use disorder and a co-occurring mental disorder) are two distinct types of care. While both programs require a holistic approach, facilities that cater to cases of dual diagnosis more heavily rely on trained psychiatric staff members to provide critical mental healthcare.

The Importance of a Strong Support Network

Both in and out of treatment, teens must rely on a strong support network. Friends and family, especially family, play a role in helping a teen stay accountable and continue to work on their mental and physical health after treatment.

As adolescents are usually in daily contact with their parents or guardians, one of the most important protective factors against relapse is a strong, positive relationship between teens and their family. Teen addiction treatment can provide a recovery toolset to combat addiction, but it’s the continuum of care and support that plays the greater, long-term role.