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Adolescent Addiction: Approaches and Goals

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Adolescent addiction presents unique treatment needs to counteract the adverse long-term effects of addiction. In addition, adolescents developing physically as well as psychologically are typically experiencing co-occurring mental health concerns, challenges with friends and family, and stressful requirements in education.

Teens are growing up too quickly, exposed to pressures through technology and educational requirements more than ever in history. Finally, the dangers are more evident than ever before with the opioid crisis and the changing laws regarding marijuana use. 

Adolescent Addiction Statistics

The Monitoring the Future Survey found through The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) shows new statistics concerning adolescent addiction. While reported use decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic, they remained lower and steady throughout 2023.

The study through the University of Michigan and funding through NIDA offers the pre-pandemic number of high school students continuing to hold. 50,000 students are participating in this yearly survey.

The percentage of adolescents reporting illicit substance use in pre-pandemic levels of 2020 is holding firm:

  • 10.9% of 8th graders
  • 19.8% of 10th graders
  • 31.2% of 12th graders

Another interesting statistic addresses new trends with high school students. A 2024 press release through the University of Michigan shows that 11% of 12th graders have been using the psychoactive cannabis product Delta-8 THC throughout the United States in the past year.

Delta-8 is a cannabis compound that produces the similar effects of marijuana. Additionally, Delta-8 products generally have no age restrictions for purchase. Most Delta-8 is made from hemp, a variation of the cannabis plant. 

Other eye-opening statistics are from another study in 2018 from The National Institute on Drug Abuse involving college students and young adults 19 to 22:

  • Marijuana use connects to 43% of college students
  • Vaping nicotine products, 15.5% of college students and 12.5% of non-college adults
  • Prescription opioids with college students dropped to 2.7% and 3.2% with young adults since 2013
  • Adderall is in use by 14.6% of male college students and 8.8% of women
  • Adderall is in use by 5.3% of non-college men and 10.1% of non-college women
  • Binge-drinking of alcohol occurs among 28% of college students and 25% of non-college adults

The Role of Genetics

Adolescent addiction forms with a risk of 50% due to genetics, according to the Centers for Disease Control and many other resources. A family history of addiction shows throughout the generations in surprising numbers. The majority of adults with a substance use disorder state that they began using in their teen and young adult years. 

Adolescents with a substance use disorder experience higher rates of physical and mental disorders and diminished health and well-being and have a potential for developing an addiction. 

Risk Factors for Adolescent Addiction

Adolescents are experiencing real-time threats in school and social situations with gun violence, social media bullying, and challenging economic factors at home. Illicit drug production targets adolescents, designing drugs that are attractive to teens and look like candy. With a new awareness of the number of teens with substance use disorders, new treatment considerations are developing.

Researchers collect data to prove to the treatment community that teens need a different journey for recovery. When parents know what is happening with their teens, adolescents experience fewer health risks. Parental education can help parents understand the best path to protect their teens from the risk factors in their lives.

Roughly 86% of youth report that their parents typically know where and who they are with. Understanding the risks adolescents face can lead parents to form a strategy to keep their teens safe from addiction.

The risk factors for youth high-risk substance use can include:

  • Genetics, family history of addiction or substance use
  • Parental attitudes that are favorable to permitting drug or alcohol use
  • Poor parental monitoring
  • Parental substance use
  • Family rejection of sexual orientation or gender identity
  • Delinquent friends or substance-using peers
  • Social alienation and bullying
  • Low academic achievement
  • Childhood sexual abuse
  • Mental health issues

Signs of Addiction

It can be challenging to see the difference between signs of addiction and teenage behaviors. Adding up the number of symptoms or signs can be helpful, and measuring the intensity of behavior can raise red flags.

It can be beneficial to enlist the help of a healthcare provider to evaluate the situation for parents who feel unsure. Monitoring mental health matters is also essential in monitoring for drug or substance use.

Signs and symptoms of addiction:

  • Extreme mood changes such as flaring temper, irritability, agitation, and defensiveness when questioned
  • Academic problems with school, including poor attendance, general apathy for education, poor grades, and disciplinary actions 
  • A change in friends
  • Someone developing a “nothing matters” attitude
  • Finding substances and paraphernalia in a youth’s room
  • Physical and mental changes, poor memory, and lack of focus or concentration

Stimulant and Opioid Addiction

Adolescents abusing drugs or alcohol regularly before their brains are still developing increases the odds of becoming addicted. Large numbers of adolescents are at risk for adolescent addiction due to prescription misuse with their medications for ADHD and mental health conditions.

Teens with prescriptions for stimulants and opioids tend to offer friends their medications without forethought of their actions. These highly addictive medications are dangerous, and parents need to monitor their use closely.

Signs of Alcoholism

Alcohol use increases the likelihood of injury through accidents from impaired thinking in teens. Decision-making ability is in question when teens excessively abuse alcohol. Alcohol seems less dangerous because it is legal to drink with people over 21 years old.

Unfortunately, teenage brains are still developing, and the use of alcohol can affect their growing brains. The age-old problem of drinking parties among teenagers often results in tragedy when they drive their cars impaired. 

Short and Long-Term Effects of Untreated Adolescent Addiction

Many adolescents self-medicate to cope with traumas, social and family dysfunction, and mental illnesses. Short and long-term effects are psychological and physical issues that carry over into young adulthood.

Without therapy, such as trauma-informed care and other forms of behavioral therapy, their excessive use can develop into a total addiction. Damage to the growth and development patterns of teens can be problematic until the drug and alcohol use ends. 

Some short and long-term effects of untreated adolescent addiction include:

  • Mental health conditions
  • Conduct disorders and violent, aggressive behaviors
  • Loss of self-esteem
  • Early sexual behaviors and teen pregnancy
  • Risk of suicidal ideation 

Treatment and Therapy

Treatment is available for adolescent addiction. Parents must pay attention to their teens and address changes in behaviors. Recognizing the possibility of drug or alcohol abuse is the first step. Many treatment centers offer adolescent programs offering cognitive-behavioral therapy and other valuable tools for drug and alcohol abuse. 

Resources are available for teens who need treatment and therapy for drug and alcohol misuse, abuse, and addiction. Holistic therapies are highly effective for youth and, combined with other evidence-based therapies, can lead to recovery.

The following acceptable therapeutic options teens may find acceptable include:

  • Art and music therapies
  • Wilderness therapy
  • Responsibility practices through work with horses and other animals
  • Teen group therapy

Find Helpful Guidance to Address Adolescent Addiction in California

Attention to important details of teenage behavior and habits can lead a parent to the realization that their teen has an addiction problem. Sierra Health + Wellness in several California locations can validate parental concerns and offer special programs with therapies that can be successful. It can be challenging to ask for help for a child, but resources are available that can make a difference.

Contact their center to discuss the options open for adolescents struggling with an addiction.