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What To Do If Your Teen or Young Adult Has Problem With Drugs

How do I know if my teen or young adult has a substance use disorder?

Addiction can happen at any age, but it usually starts when a person is young. If your teen continues to use drugs despite harmful consequences, he or she may be addicted. If an adolescent starts behaving differently for no apparent reason–such as acting withdrawn, frequently tired or depressed, or hostile–it could be a sign he or she is developing a drug-related problem. Parents and others may overlook such signs, believing them to be a normal part of puberty. Other signs include:

  • a change in a peer group
  • carelessness with grooming
  • a decline in academic performance
  • missing classes or skipping school
  • loss of interest in favorite activities
  • trouble in school or with the law
  • change in eating or sleeping habits
  • deteriorating relationships with family members and friends

Through scientific advances, we know more than ever about how drugs affect the teenage brain. We also know that addiction can be successfully treated to help young people stop abusing drugs and lead productive lives. Intervening early when you first spot signs drug use in your teen is critical; don’t wait for your teen to become addicted before you seek help. However, if a teen is addicted, treatment is the next step.

Why can’t some teens stop using drugs on their own?

Repeated drug use changes the brain. Brain imaging studies of people with drug addictions show changes in areas of the brain that are critical to judgment, decision-making, learning and memory, and behavior control. Quitting is difficult, even for those who feel ready.

If I want help for my teen or young adult, where do I start?

Asking for help from professionals is the first important step.

You can start by bringing your child to a doctor who can screen for signs of drug use and other related health conditions. You can also contact an addiction specialist directly. You, your child, and your child’s physician can decide if they should be referred to treatment.

It takes a lot of courage to seek help for a child with a possible drug problem because there is a lot of hard work ahead for both of you, and it interrupts academic, personal, and possibly athletic milestones expected during the teen years. However, treatment works, and teens can recover from addiction, although it may take time and patience. Treatment enables young people to counteract addiction’s powerful disruptive effects on their brain and behavior so they can regain control of their lives. You want to be sure your teen is healthy before venturing into the world with more independence, and where drugs are more easily available.

Is there a medication that can help my teen overcome their substance misuse?

There are medications available to treat addictions to alcohol, nicotine, and opioids (heroin and pain relievers). These are generally prescribed for adults but, in some circumstances, doctors may prescribe them for younger patients. When medication is available, it can be combined with behavioral therapy to ensure success for most patients.

Your treatment provider will advise you about what medications are available for your particular situation.

How do I find the right treatment center?

If you or your medical specialist decides your teen can benefit from substance abuse treatment, there are many options available. You can start by contacting the government’s Treatment Locator services at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or go online at http://findtreatment.samhsa.gov/. This treatment locator service lets you search for a provider in your area; it will also tell you information about the treatment center and if it works with teens.

What kind of counseling is best for a teen or young adult?

Your child’s treatment provider will probably recommend counseling. Behavioral treatment (also known as “talk therapy”) can help patients engage in the treatment process, change their attitudes and behaviors related to substance abuse, and increase healthy life skills. These treatments can also enhance the effectiveness of medications and help people stay in treatment longer.

Treatment for substance abuse and addiction can be delivered in many different settings using a variety of behavioral approaches. With adults, both individual therapy and group counseling settings with peers are used. However, studies suggest group therapy can be risky with a younger age group, as some participants in a group may have negative influence over the others, or even steer conversations toward stories about having fun with drugs. Some research suggests that the most effective treatments for teens are those that involve one or more family members present.

How do we keep things stable in our home until my teen is in treatment?

First, talk to your teen. There are ways to have a conversation about drugs or other sensitive issues that will prevent escalation into an argument. NIDA’s Family Checkup Tool (https://www.drugabuse.gov/family-checkup) gives science-based techniques for communicating with your child effectively without emotions getting in the way, as well as ways for setting limits and supervision your teen.

Acknowledge your child’s opinions but know that many people with substance abuse problems are afraid and ashamed and might not always tell the truth. This is why it is important to involve medical professionals who have experience working with people struggling with substance abuse issues.

I have heard that teens and young adults who use drugs could be self-medicating because they feel depressed. How do we handle that problem as well?

It is very possible your child needs to find treatment for both depression and addiction. This is very common. It is called “co-morbidity” or “co-occurrence” when you have more than one health problem at the same time. Parents should encourage their children to tell all of their health care providers about all of their symptoms and behaviors. There are many nonaddictive drugs that can help with depression or other mental health issues. Sometimes health care providers do not communicate with each other as well as they should, so you can be your child’s advocate and make sure all relevant health care providers know about all of your child’s health issues. Your child should be treated for all health issues at the same time.

If your child ever feels so depressed that you think they may self-harm, there is a hotline you or your child can call. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s number is 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You are also welcome to call it to discuss your child’s symptoms and get advice on how to best handle the situation.

Get Help

For general resources about relationships, sex, wellness and more, please do a search on the Get Answers page.

Are you in immediate danger?

Call 911 or your local police. If not in an immediate threat, please view resources on the Get Help page.