Learn / Choosing a Rehab for Your Teen or Young Adult
If your teen or young adult is struggling with substance abuse, you likely have a lot on your mind. From wondering how your teen got involved in drugs in the first place to worrying about what the future holds, it’s tough to know where to turn and the right questions to ask. The encouraging news is that specialized therapy is accessible in a wide range of settings. Many rehabs offer programs designed exclusively for young people.
Teen substance abuse is a serious matter. Studies show that young people’s brains are still developing1 until they reach their mid-20s—especially the area responsible for decision-making. During this crucial time, substance use “can interfere with developmental processes occurring in the brain.” Long-term drug use alters young people’s cognitive function, putting them at risk for chronic dependency and bringing increasingly worse life consequences. That’s why it’s crucial to provide teens with the treatment they need now, so they can mature into healthy, well-adjusted adults.
If you’re looking for addiction treatment information for your teen or young adult, it helps to understand what they’re going through and what their options are.
Teenagers are in a unique stage of their lives. They’re forming their identities, going through bodily changes, and developing a stronger desire for independence. Their thinking is starting to expand beyond their limited, childhood view of the world. These changes can prompt them to challenge authority and experiment with different concepts that were previously off limits.
Unfortunately, at this age, the area of the brain responsible for decision-making hasn’t yet matured. Research suggests that “the developing brain may help explain why adolescents sometimes make decisions that are risky1 and can lead to safety or health concerns, including unique vulnerabilities to drug abuse.”
Aside from age alone, a number of factors can influence young people’s risk for substance abuse:
Teenage years can take a toll on young people’s emotions, often leading to stress, depression, or lack of confidence. When teens feel sadness or anxiety and can’t find a positive outlet for their feelings, they might take comfort in drugs or alcohol.
Teens and young adults with mental health issues including depression, trauma, or ADHD may be more prone to abuse drugs. “The combination of these two conditions has its own term: dual diagnosis, or co-occurring disorders,” says the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “It is possible for either problem (substance abuse or mental illness) to emerge first.” The co-occurring disorders of addiction and mental illness2 can exacerbate each other’s negative effects, sometimes leading teens to aggressive or high-risk behavior. When this happens, it’s doubtful that teens and their families will break this destructive cycle without professional help. In some circumstances, the supervision and immersion that residential rehab offers can be the best approach to start young people on the road to recovery.
Co-occurring disorders are particularly complex and require specialized treatment. For more information, see the following:
Research shows that “adolescents without strong social supports would have tendency towards smoking and drug abuse,”3 and that a lack of said support can decrease self-esteem.
Low self-esteem in teens can lead to self-destructive behaviors. Teenagers are pressured to look and act a certain way4 by the media, bullies, and often by their families. If they don’t meet those expectations, their confidence can take a hit. Using drugs or alcohol may make them feel like they fit in, or quiet their feelings of inadequacy.
Teenagers—frequently girls—often become self-conscious about their bodies and may feel like they need to have a certain body type to fit in with their peers or to attract romantic interests. One study on young people’s use of prescription stimulants for weight loss5 sadly found that “nearly 12% of respondents reported using prescription stimulants to lose weight.” As a result, teens caught in this cycle may also develop disordered eating.
If a teenager is close to an adult who suffers from addiction, they may be more likely to develop a substance abuse disorder themselves. They may turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with the stress of chaos in the household. Or perhaps they’re simply following examples set by older relatives. Some adolescents may even carry a stronger genetic predisposition to developing substance abuse disorders.6
If your teen is abusing drugs or alcohol, you’ve likely noticed some warning signs:
It can be difficult to tell if this is merely a phase or if your teen is on the way to addiction. If you notice any of these indicators of substance abuse in your teen, it may be wise to begin researching treatment options or talking to a professional who can help.
Whether or not parents or guardians can forcibly admit their child to rehab varies by state.7 In most U.S. states, minors under the age of 18 can be taken to rehab without their consent. State laws also vary depending on the following factors:
Level of care provided: Is the program you’re considering inpatient, outpatient, or a partial hospitalization program (PHP)?
Type of facility: Is the center you’re considering a mental health treatment center, drug rehabilitation center, or dual diagnosis treatment center?
Researching the protocols in your state, and talking to a rehab admissions team member, can help you determine the best course of action for your family.
For more information, see our frequently asked questions regarding involuntary rehab.
Some program features are more commonly found at rehabs for teens and young adults. These aim to address problems that people at this age often face, and relate to them in a way that makes sense for their lived experience at this stage.
Rehab programs in this age group are often gender-segregated. While this isn’t always necessary, it can offer a few advantages:
Reducing distraction: Recovery is a vulnerable process, and rehab clients can be more susceptible to developing attractions that can disrupt their treatment experience. This may be especially true for teens, for whom social interactions are of primary importance. Same-gender housing and shared spaces allows clients to focus fully on themselves for the duration of their time in rehab.
Working through gender-specific issues: These programs provide space for young people to address gender-based traumas or other concerns that more commonly affect people of their gender.
Strengthening bonds: Clients might have an easier time making friends with recovery peers who share this aspect of their experience.
Some teens may benefit more from treatment in a setting where they may learn from people of different backgrounds and life experiences. Coed programs may also offer more opportunities to practice their skills in settings that more closely resemble their larger community. What’s important is choosing a program that makes your teen feel emotionally safe, while introducing them to experiences that foster growth.
Adolescents can be especially vulnerable to eating disorders. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, as many as 1 in 10 young women in the U.S. suffer from an eating disorder.8 Furthermore, one study on substance abuse among women with anorexia9 reports that approximately 50% of people with eating disorders misuse alcohol or illegal substances. Eating disorders and substance addiction actually have several risk factors in common: family history, low self-esteem, brain chemistry, depression, and stress. Many teen and young adult rehabs offer programs that treat clients who have one or both of these conditions.
It’s common for teen and young adult treatment programs to place a strong emphasis on activities-based experiential therapies. Activities you’ll often find at these programs range from outdoor excursions that test participants’ limits, to learning life skills through gardening, to expressing creativity through music and art.
While these are more fun and engaging for young people than traditional talk therapy alone, they also provide important opportunities for them to connect with themselves and put new skills into practice.
Young people in these programs can discover what it’s like to feel good in healthy ways, through things like learning a new sport or spending time in nature. Behavioral health experts agree that this can have a long-term influence on their sobriety and health. According to one study of teen rehab clients’ long-term outcomes, “continued physical health for recovered teenage drug users10 is critical…because it may improve the success of rehabilitation.”
Adolescent drug misuse affects the entire family. That’s why, according to specialists studying the impact of substance abuse on families,11 “treating only the individual with the active disease of addiction is limited in effectiveness.” When clients have supportive parents, siblings, or other family members, it’s critical that they participate in the healing process.
Adolescent rehab programs typically provide some form of family counseling, which many clients find beneficial to their treatment experience. Sometimes, loved ones join treatment sessions through video conferencing. Other rehabs invite family members to stay with clients for a short time during the program. And programs may offer an arrangement where family members can stay onsite or nearby and participate in addiction education workshops and other activities alongside their teen.
Some rehabs may restrict clients’ communication with others outside their treatment plan. Cell phone use is frequently limited or banned during treatment in some programs. Others may restrict calls or visits at the start of the program, but allow outside interaction once a certain amount of time has passed. If maintaining contact with your child during treatment is important to you, make sure to ask your rehab about their policy on device use and communication.
Adolescence is a formative time. Teens will gradually learn more about themselves as they grow, defining their identities, aspirations, values, and desires. Connecting them to appropriate help when challenges arise is vital.
Substance abuse disorders are serious for people of any age. Exploring the different treatment programs available to your teens is a great place to start the healing process. For information including treatments offered, client experiences, staff qualifications and more, see our directory of teen and young adult rehabs here.
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