Adolescents who abuse substances begin their relationship with drugs without the intention of becoming addicted. Drugs are used for a variety of reasons; many believe adolescents use substances in order to feel accepted and help diminish social anxiety or feel a sense of excitement and power. Usually, when teenagers turn to drugs and alcohol, they do so to help manage their emotions – either trying to numb or block out certain feelings of insecurity, inadequacy, anger, fear, resentment, lack of self worth, etc., negative past experiences or sensations – and/or to feel in control. Substance misuse is indicative of impairment in an adolescents’ sense of who they are. Drugs serve the temporary function of soothing unwanted emotions and providing a false sense that the adolescents are in control of their feelings.
The issue of youth substance abuse may be masked not only because drug experimentation is common among young people but also because adolescents are able to more easily recover from physical effects. Parents and significant others may only recognize a young person’s struggle with chemical dependency when more obvious symptoms, such as changes in physical appearance, struggles with academics, loss of interest in previous activities, and irresponsible behavior no longer remain hidden. Once discovered, adolescents may withdraw or get instinctively angry because there is a threat to their external source of comfort and security and they lack an internal locus of control. If teens are force to give up substances, they become vulnerable to their emotions and the past experiences that contributed to the use of drugs or alcohol in the first place.
Difficulties in adolescents with substance abuse have specifically been found in the following areas:
With these thing in mind, it is evident that recovery from substance abuse must involve strengthening one’s sense of self in order to develop the capacity for healthy emotional regulation. This process for an adolescent will take time. A young person will need to work through many defensive feelings to address what a drug means, what it means to use/not use and who they are when not on substances. Family members, who may be pushing for the addicted person to recover, must keep this in mind and avoid accelerating the process. To be the most effective caregivers, parents must also understand the basics of substance abuse and the unique characteristics of adolescent dependency. There must be recognition that a chemical has served some role for the adolescent and within the family context. Individual psychotherapy can help provide a space for adolescents to safely explore their past, examine the underlying reasons for their substance use, and work through past experiences and feelings so they no longer overwhelm the adolescent emotionally. Support from others in similar situations, whether through Al-Anon or family support groups, may also be necessary. Finally, family therapy can be considered, not only to help support the struggling adolescent but also to help the family start to reorganize, recover, and work to enhance positive, healthy connections and relationships.
Posted by Asya Brodsky, LSW
Khantzian, E.J. (1995). Self-Regulation Vulnerabilities In Substance Abusers: Treatment Implications. The Psychology and Treatment of Addictive Behavior, p. 17-41.